It is well established in the child development literature that children from materially deprived backgrounds have poorer outcomes than those from wealthy families (Hoff et al, 2002; Centre for Community Child Health Royal Children's Hospital, 2004; Richardson and Prior, 2005). There is now a significant body of literature on the relationships between indicators of material and social well-being on the one hand, and child outcomes on the other (Bor et al, 1997). The majority of studies compare families who are defined as poor with non-poor families (see, for example, Fergusson et al, 1994), or alternatively measure the average association between income or socioeconomic status (SES) and an outcome indicator (Haveman and Wolfe, 1994; Mayer, 1997). This academic focus on poor families reflects policy interest in the relationship between family poverty and children's outcomes, and intergenerational transfer of social and economic disadvantage. Underpinning much of this research, and associated policy interest, is the assumption that there is something specific about poverty that causes poor outcomes for children. Often, that ‘something’ is identified as an aspect of parenting, or parents’ behaviour. Underlying this assumption, therefore, is the expectation of discontinuity between the behaviour, attitudes and relationships of poor families, and those found in the rest of society.
However, little research or theoretical attention has been devoted to the differences in outcomes among children who come from non-poor families. Yet differences in outcomes for children from high-income and middle-income households, for example, can also be significant. The purpose of this chapter is to use recent Australian data to explore these differences further. First, do children from high-income backgrounds have significantly better outcomes than children from middle-income backgrounds? And second, if better outcomes are found, what factors might explain this difference? In this analysis, we focus in particular on ‘vulnerable’ children – those with considerably less than average outcome scores across a range of measures. The question of differences in outcomes among children from middle- and high-income families has significant implications for our understanding of the relationship between material well-being and child outcomes, and how parenting influences that relationship, and for policy and practice relating to interventions to enhance developmental outcomes for young children. Moreover, by studying middle- and high-income children who have the best outcomes in the population, it may be possible to gain a deeper understanding of the factors that promote positive outcomes for all children.