Assoc Prof Teo You Yenn: Address the Roots of Inequality

December 2018

Assoc Prof Teo You Yenn (centre) with Singapore Children's Society's Chairman Mr Koh Choon Hui (left) and Assoc Prof John Elliott (right) after the lecture.

When children from low-income households struggle in school or deal with issues like limited prospects and youth pregnancy, they draw labels like ‘delinquent’ or being from ‘dysfunctional families’. 

Yet, without understanding the broader context – the unequal social conditions that shape their experiences and options – it is impossible to intervene appropriately, said Assoc Prof Teo You Yenn, Head of Sociology at Nanyang Technological University. She was speaking at the 12th Singapore Children’s Society Lecture at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre on 15 September.

In her lecture, ‘Growing up in an Unequal Society’, in which she referenced her book ‘This is What Inequality Looks Like, Assoc Prof Teo suggested that interventions must consider the limited access low-income families have to time, money and social spending at various stages of their children’s lives.

She also suggested that three things needed to change. The first is a de-emphasis on precocity, giving children the gift of time to learn and develop their varied strengths. Learning, she said, is a process higher-income families can afford to fast-forward, and is one not necessarily helped by a tracking and banding system that, itself, shapes learning behaviours.

Secondly, the social and financial circumstances of parents need to be addressed, since this impacts their available time, resources and "access to public goods that do not replicate market inequalities".

Finally, pointing to interventions, she said that there was a need to create “conditions that allow people mastery over their lives, that allow them to make the best decisions for their families”, rather than forcing them into a certain mould.

“We must frame the challenge differently — not as one where the problem is with the kids from low-income families, but where the problem is about our system of rewards as well as what parents from higher-income families are doing in response to this system of rewards.”

“I know this is a very uncomfortable way of approaching the problem because it requires those of us who tend to be the ones talking about the problem to admit to our own complicity. But I think it is crucial if we are serious about this problem. We cannot keep doing the same things and expect outcomes to be different,” she said.

Thank you, Assoc Prof Teo, for sharing your insights, and pointing us to the possibilities we can create by working together.


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