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Column: Poor little rich kids

By Chrystia Freeland

NEW YORK (Reuters) - If you doubt that we live in a winner-take-all economy and that education is the trump card, consider the vast amounts the affluent spend to teach their offspring. We see it anecdotally in the soaring fees for private schools, private lessons and private tutors, many of them targeted at the preschool set. And recent academic research has confirmed what many of us overhear at the school gates or read on mommy blogs.

This power spending on the children of the economic elite is usually — and rightly — cited as further evidence of the dangers of rising income inequality. Whatever your views about income inequality among the parents, inherited privilege is inimical to the promise of equal opportunity, which is central to the social compact in Western democracies.

But it may be that the less lavishly educated children lower down the income distribution aren't the only losers. Being groomed for the winner-take-all economy starting in nursery school turns out to exact a toll on the children at the top, too.

First, the data on parental spending on education. There is a lively debate among politicians and professors both about whether the economy is becoming more polarized and about the importance of education. Dismissing the value of a college education is one of the more popular clever-sounding contrarian ideas of the moment. And there are still a few die-hards who play down the social significance of rising income inequality.

When you translate these abstract arguments into the practical choices we make in our personal lives, however, the intellectual disagreements melt away. We are all spending a lot more money to educate our kids, and the richest have stepped up their spending more than everyone else.

In "Investing in Children: Changes in Parental Spending on Children, 1972-2007," a study published this year in the journal Demography, the researchers Sabino Kornrich and Frank F. Furstenberg found that spending on children grew over the past four decades and that it became more unequal.

"Our findings also show that investment grew more unequal over the study period: parents near the top of the income distribution spent more in real dollars near the end of the 2000s than in the early 1970s, and the gap in spending between rich and poor grew."

Kornrich and Furstenberg warn that social mobility is in jeopardy. "In the race to the top, higher-income children are at an ever greater advantage because their parents can and do spend more on child care, preschool, and the growing costs of postsecondary education," they write. "Thus, contemporary increases in inequality may lead to even greater increases in inequality in the future as advantage and disadvantage are passed across the generations through investment."

They are right to worry. But it turns out that the children being primed for that race to the top from preschool onward aren't in such great shape, either.

That is the conclusion of research by Suniya S. Luthar, professor of psychology and education at Columbia University's Teachers College. Luthar stumbled upon the subject of troubled rich kids.

"I was looking for a comparison group for the inner-city kids," Luthar told me. "And we happened to find that substance use, depression and anxiety, particularly among the girls, were much higher than among inner-city kids."

That accidental discovery set Luthar on a research path that has prompted her to conclude that the children of privilege are an "at-risk" group. "What we are finding again and again, in upper-middle-class school districts, is the proportion who are struggling are significantly higher than in normative samples," she said. "Upper- middle-class kids are an at-risk group."

Luthar's findings are directly connected to the stepped-up spending on children's education at the top that Kornrich and Furstenberg document. The title of the paper she is finishing now, due to be published in the autumn, is "I Can, Therefore I Must: Fragility in the Upper Middle Class," and it describes a world in which the opportunities, and therefore the demands, for upper-middle-class children are infinite.

"It is an endless cycle, starting from kindergarten," Luthar said. "The difficulty is that you have these enrichment activities. It is almost as if, if you have the opportunity, you must avail yourself of it. The pressure is enormous."

It can be tempting, particularly if you don't happen to be raising children yourself in one of the hothouse communities Luthar studies, to dismiss this hyper-education as a frivolous, albeit painful, form of conspicuous consumption, like cosmetic surgery or flashy cars. But the truth is that these parents and children are responding rationally to a hyper-competitive world economy.

"These are kids whose parents value upward mobility," Luthar said. "When we talk to youngsters now, when they set goals for themselves, they want to match up to at least what their parents have achieved, and that is harder to do."

It turns out that our children are feeling the same paradoxical strains of the 21st century that we all are. Increasingly, we live in individualistic democracies whose credo is that anyone can be a winner if he or she tries. But we are also subject to increasingly fierce winner-take-all forces, which means the winners' circle is ever smaller, and the value of winning is ever higher.

Luthar says the children she studies fear the price of losing would be psychic as well as economic: "What happens to me if I fall behind? I'll be worth nothing." In an age when more and more of the middle class is falling behind, no wonder they — and their parents — are at risk.

(Chrystia Freeland is a Reuters columnist. Any opinions expressed are her own.)

(Chrystia Freeland is the managing director and editor, Consumer News at Thomson Reuters. Prior, she was U.S. managing editor of the Financial Times. Before that, Freeland was deputy editor of the Financial Times, in London, editor of the FT's Weekend edition, editor of FT.com, UK News editor, Moscow bureau chief and Eastern Europe correspondent. From 1999 to 2001, Freeland served as deputy editor of The Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper. Freeland began her career working as a stringer in Ukraine, writing for the FT, The Washington Post and The Economist.

She is the author of two books: "Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-rich and the Fall of Everyone Else," published by Penguin in 2012 and "Sale of the Century: The Inside Story of the Second Russian Revolution," published by Crown Publishing books in 2000.)

(Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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