The University Record, March 12, 2001

Clean homes may boost children’s adult earnings, study shows

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

Busy parents thinking about putting off spring cleaning may want to think again. A U-M study shows that the cleanliness of the home in which children grow up predicts their educational attainment and earnings more than 25 years later.

“Parents who keep their homes clean may be more organized and efficient than others,” says researcher Rachel Dunifon, “and these characteristics may carry over to other aspects of their lives, such as parenting. As a result, children raised in clean homes may be more successful in school and at work.”

The study, presented earlier this year at the annual meeting of the American Economics Association, is based on an analysis of data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a longitudinal study of a representative sample of U.S. men, women and children, conducted since 1968 at the Institute for Social Research.

Because of the comprehensive and long-range nature of the study, Dunifon and collaborators Greg J. Duncan of Northwestern University and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn of Columbia University were able to control for parents’ socioeconomic background, cognitive ability, education and a host of other factors, isolating the impact of home cleanliness on the educational attainment and earnings of 3,395 young adults.

They even controlled for the amount of time parents said they spent cleaning their home. “We wanted to assess the effect of efficiency, not obsessive cleaning activity,” explains Dunifon. “One person might spend 40 hours a week cleaning, but the home might not be as clean as a more efficient person who spends five or 10 hours.”

Home cleanliness was assessed by interviewers who visited each respondent’s home every year from 1968 to 1972, rating overall home cleanliness on a five-point scale from 1 (dirty) to 5 (very clean). On average, over all five years, 50 percent of the homes were rated between very clean and clean, 33 percent between clean and so-so, 11 percent between so-so and not clean, and 5 percent between not clean and dirty.

Then, 25 years later, the researchers assessed the educational attainment and earnings of the young adults who grew up in those homes. After controlling for parental education, income and many other factors, they found that young adults who grew up in homes rated clean to very clean had completed 13.6 years of school, compared with 12 years for those whose childhood homes were rated as not very clean to dirty. Their wages reflected the same pattern, with those growing up in the cleanest homes averaging $14.17 an hour, compared with $12.60 an hour for those raised in the least clean homes. For a 40-hour week, that adds up to about $3,100 more a year.

“Keeping a clean and organized home reflects an overall ability and desire to maintain a sense of order in a wide range of life activities,” says Dunifon. “These are qualities that also seem to be important in predicting intergenerational success.”

“Our results highlight the fact that success is not totally accounted for by the education and income of one’s parents,” says Brooks-Gunn. “Motivation, will and conscientiousness all make a difference.”

Although the researchers adjusted for many factors believed to influence children’s educational and labor market success, Dunifon emphasizes that they may not have been able to account for all the ways other than organization and efficiency in which families rated as having clean homes may differ from those whose homes were rated as less clean.

Still, Dunifon’s own mother is pleased about the study findings. “She sort of sees it as a vindication of her homemaking standards,” she notes. “When I was growing up, she always kept our home pretty clean.”