Study: Childhood Math and Reading Skills Predict Adult Financial Success

A new socioeconomic status (SES) study by University of Edinburgh scientists shows that childhood math and reading abilities are among the most powerful predictors of adult success.

Stuart Richie, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Psychology, and Timothy Bates, a professor at the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, published their findings last week in Psychological Science.

Their study builds on previous research into how a child's cognitive and non-cognitive influences affect his or her SES later in life.

“We wanted to test whether being better at math or reading in childhood would be linked with a rise through the social ranks,” Richie and Bates explained in a press release.

According to Ritchie and Bates, childhood math and reading abilities trump intelligence, academic motivation, length of education, and parents’ socioeconomic status in predicting the child's likelihood of getting a better job, better housing, and higher income as an adult.

The researchers explored all of these variables using data from the National Child Development Study, currently following more than 18,000 people from England, Scotland, and Wales born in a single week in 1958.

This large longitudinal study, also known as the 1958 Birth Cohort, gathers information on participants’ physical and educational development, economic circumstances, employment, family life, and other socioeconomic indicators. Since the original birth survey in 1958, there have been eight “sweeps” to collect data from participants at ages 7, 11, 16, 23, 33, 42, 46, and 50. Richie and Bates focused only on data collected when participants were 7, 11, 16, and 42.

“The main take-home point is that reading and math affect attained SES even after controlling for general intelligence, motivation, educational duration, and social class of origin,” Richie explained in an interview with Healthline.

For example, the data suggest that increasing your reading ability by one grade level at age 7 translates into a roughly $7,750 increase in income by age 42.

“These independent effects are approximately equivalent in size to the independent effects of social class of origin on attained SES, so they're pretty substantial,” Richie added.

Tracking the Early Traits of Success

Richie and Bates divided the research sample equally between males and females. They found that the path to success differed somewhat for each sex.

For example, the association between reading ability and attained SES was much greater for women than for men. But intelligence was more strongly linked to academic motivation in men than in women.

Researchers also found more general links between math and reading skills and intelligence, academic motivation, and educational duration. This may be because individuals with superior skills in math and reading are more competitive in their chosen occupations.

“A lot of researchers in psychology wouldn't expect that specific skills like reading and math would matter for social mobility, once general intelligence is taken into account. The surprising thing about our model is that while general intelligence is critically important, specific skills like reading and math are still predictive of later socioeconomic success,” Richie explained.

What’s Next?

Earlier studies have found that math and reading skills—and intelligence in general—are genetically distinct abilities.

“The effect of reading on intelligence is a really interesting one,” said Richie. “Does learning to read make you smarter? If it did, then reading wouldn't just have these direct effects on SES, it would work indirectly to raise SES by raising intelligence.”

The only way to test these hypotheses further is to tease apart the genetic and environmental components of the reading-intelligence relationship by studying identical twins.

Richie and Bates are currently running a new, genetically controlled study to determine the extent to which environmental interventions, like reading and math tutoring, might help strengthen the links they identified in their current paper.

“What we know now is that reading and math aren't merely indicators of how smart or motivated you are, or the social or economic situation you grew up in—they are independent skills that might directly influence your future monetary success,” Richie said.

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