Inequality in socio-emotional skills a cross-cohort comparison

Document type
Working Paper
Attanasio, Orazio; Blundell, Richard; Conti, Gabriella
Institute for Fiscal Studies
Date of publication
1 April 2020
IFS Working Paper; W20/11
Social Policy, Children and Young People
Social welfare
Material type

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This paper examines changes in inequality in socio-emotional skills very early in life in two British cohorts born 30 years apart. It constructs comparable scales using two validated instruments for the measurement of child behaviour and identify two dimensions of socio-emotional skills: ‘internalising’ and ‘eternalising’. Using recent methodological advances in factor analysis, it establishes comparability in the inequality of these early skills across cohorts, but not in their average level. This paper documents for the first time that inequality in socio-emotional skills has increased across cohorts, especially for boys and at the bottom of the distribution. It also formally decomposes the sources of the increase in inequality and finds that compositional changes explain half of the rise in inequality in externalising skills. On the other hand, the increase in inequality in internalising skills seems entirely driven by changes in returns to background characteristics. Lastly, this paper documents that socio-emotional skills measured at an earlier age than in most of the existing literature are significant predictors of health and health behaviours. The results show the importance of formally testing comparability of measurements to study skills differences across groups, and in general point to the role of inequalities in the early years for the accumulation of health and human capital across the life course.

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