Childcare Costs a High Barrier to Access for Low-Income Kids in DC and Nationwide

April 28, 2016

Picking up where I left off, access to child care is one of the big issues facing parents and policymakers. Low-income children, especially the youngest apparently don’t have equal access to the sort of care that would give them more equal opportunities during the rest of their lives.

So how might we parse access?

In one sense, it obviously means having enough slots in childcare centers, home-based and publicly-funded programs for all children whose parents want them there.

The slots must also, of course, be for their children’s age group and where parents can get their kids to them fairly quickly and at a reasonable cost.

But an age-appropriate slot in a conveniently located program will mean nothing if the parents can’t afford it. Nor if the program doesn’t provide care during the hours they themselves can’t.

We know how costly unsubsidized child care is nationwide and in each state, plus the District of Columbia, which racks up the highest costs of all.

Care for an infant in a local daycare center, for example, cost, on average, $22,631 last year — more than what a single parent, working full time, year round at a minimum wage job earned. Only about $4,790 less for a four-year-old.

The parent is technically eligible for a voucher. But the priority list for awards casts doubt on whether she could get one.

Even if she could, finding a slot could be hard because the District’s reimbursement rates are so low that providers either won’t accept children with subsidies or limit the number they will — a long-standing problem the District still hasn’t remedied.

The District also, however, has Early Start — a spin-off from Head Start for infants and toddlers in families with incomes no higher than the federal poverty line, plus some who may have more, but not enough to get by.

Little hope for poor parents here, it seems. The program enrolled only 12% of eligible children, according recent Census data.

For somewhat older children, the District has Head Start — an enrollment figure reportedly over 100% of those eligible. It also has pre-K programs in its public school system. These, of course, are also free.

But none of the programs operates on weekends or during evening and nighttime hours, when low-income parents must often work. Nor during summer months. So the programs may be accessible, but they don’t fully meet the need.

I’ve focused on the District, but we see generally the same problems in communities across the country — except, of course, for wealthy enclaves. Head Start and Early Start don’t provide nighttime care for children anyplace, for example.

Last year, child care was the single largest family expense, reports. But that’s only for parents who could scrape up the money — an average nationwide of about $9,775 a year for just one child in a center.

Obviously an access barrier for many others, unless they got vouchers to subsidize child care.The main federal funding sources subsidized care for only 15% of eligible children in 2012, the latest year we’ve got reliable figures for.

More recent figures from CLASP suggest that the gap between need and access has grown since, though we don’t — and to my knowledge, never had — a hard number for this.

We do, however, know that low-income parents must often make do with makeshift arrangements — sometimes parking a child with a relative, sometimes with a neighbor, sometimes just where they can keep an eye on their kids or not even that.

Most such arrangements may keep children safe, fed and the like. But they probably don’t provide the early learning experiences that a high-quality childcare program does. Money isn’t enough for that, but it’s the foundation.

What We Look for in Child Care for Little Kids and Why

April 25, 2016

When I was three, I was sent for half the day to what was called a nursery school, though it included a kindergarten for the five-year-olds. It truly was a nursery and garden for growing children.

Lots of outdoor space. A little house among the trees. “Wheel toys” to push or pedal up and down the paved drive. Two playgrounds — sandboxes, a jungle gym with rings to hang from.

Easels with pots of tempera and big brushes, jars of finger paints, mounds of molding clay. Time together in  circles, where we sang and had stories read to us. And caring teachers. I recall a sad little boy snuggled up in a teacher’s lap.

I’ve no idea how much the school cost. It couldn’t have been all that much because my parents didn’t have all that much to spend on what today we call “enrichment.” That’s partly because my father was the sole family breadwinner.

The upside of that was a mother with ample time to spend on free enriching experiences for me — and later, my sibs.

Child Care Not So Optional Now

Fast forward more years than I care to mention. Sending children to some form of child care isn’t just something parents like mine can do to give their kids opportunities for creative play, hands-on-learning, socializing, etc.

It’s often a necessity because they’ve got to have someone caring for their kids while they work for pay — or go to school or training to prepare for that. And making sure the kids are safe, fed and diapered, if they’re very young, is only part of it.

Care like what I got is extra important for low-income parents, working or otherwise, because their kids often need learning experiences they don’t get a home.

Without them, they’ll begin school already behind. And their parents probably can’t do enough to catch them up for the same reasons they didn’t — and most likely couldn’t — do what would have put them on a level playing field from the get-go.

The Economic Policy Institute reports that low-income children still start kindergarten with less developed skills — both cognitive, e.g., reading, math, and non-cognitive, e.g., persistence or, as it’s often called now, grit, the ability to work with and simply get along with peers.

These relative disadvantages increase over time, showing up in test score gaps, graduation rates, employment prospects and so forth. In short, lifelong inequalities begin “at the starting gate,” as the report’s title indicates.

Major Childcare Issues for Families and Policymakers

We’ve got two big issues, I think. One is access, the other quality. They’re obviously issues for parents, especially those who’ve got limited, if any income to spend on child care.

They’re also issues for our country — and thus our policymakers — because the growth and fairness of our economy hinges on the opportunities we provide for children who’ll otherwise remain stuck in poverty or near-poverty.

And they’re issues for all of us in the nation’s capital, where some 32,000 children under six live in families with no non-working parent and childcare costs are extraordinarily high — a special challenge for the low-income parents of about 10,440 children too young for preschool.

Much to cover — in part because we have a wealth of research, in part because the childcare system is a complex business and, in part, because, as I hope to show, the two issues I’ve laid out converge in a third.

So I’ll leave off here and tackle access and quality in separate posts. You can guess, I suppose, what links them and will loom large in both.

It’s money, both how much families have (or don’t) and how much government programs supply. Not enough, as you also probably guessed.

Why DC Should End “One Size Fits All” TANF Time Limit

February 18, 2016

We often see “one size fits all” used to characterize programs of various sorts, including the District of Columbia’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. The services aren’t that way any more. But the time limit is.

Families can participate for a lifetime total of 60 months. For some, that’s enough. For many, it’s not because the parents can’t get — and keep — a job paying anything like what they need to support themselves and their children.

We can get a handle on the barriers these parents face from the extensions the bill I recently mentioned would provide. They signal the sweeping nature of the time limit in another way too — specifically, that it denies benefits to children, who, of course, can do nothing to support themselves or make their parents more employable.

Different Extensions for Different Situations

Some of the proposed extensions would apply to parents who just need more time to surmount the barriers they face. Others recognize that some parents or substitute caregivers will probably face barriers until the kids are grown — longer, in fact, but they won’t be eligible for TANF any more.

This isn’t to say that we can use the extensions to neatly classify each TANF parent who might qualify. In some cases, it’s hard to say whether a parent just needs another year or so of cash support and services or whether further services probably won’t boost her over the barrier — or barriers — between her and gainful work.

The plural here because we shouldn’t assume that each parent faces only one barrier, as the Urban Institute’s analysis of the District’s TANF caseload clearly shows.

We can nevertheless find in the extensions various reasons families shouldn’t get tossed out of the program because they’ve reached a fixed, across-the-board time limit.

Parents Who Just Need More Time

Some extensions imply barriers parents can often surmount. For example, we find one for parents who’ve experienced domestic violence and are still receiving counseling or other such services to help them cope with the trauma.

Another extension would apply to parents who’d have an unusually hard time finding a job because the local unemployment rate for workers without at least a high school diploma is 7% or higher.

Two extensions would tend to reduce the number eligible for the above. One would apply to teenage parents enrolled in high school or a GED program.

The other would buy time for parents enrolled in a postsecondary education program or a credential-granting program that’s passed muster with the Department of Employment Services.

If TANF is supposed to reduce dependency, as the federal law says, then forcing these parents to quit their studies and seek low-wage, unstable jobs — the only sort most could get — is obviously counter-productive.

Parents Up Against Seemingly Permanent Barriers

Here we find an extension for parents who have severe mental or physical disabilities, but haven’t qualified for either of the two main federal sources of cash support for people too disabled to work.

Another extension would apply to parents with learning disabilities that preclude employment. Still another, which might overlap, is for parents who can’t read at the level expected of eighth graders.

Another would apply to any parent or “caretaker” who’s at least 60 years old — this, of course, because anyone in that age bracket who’s jobless and has been for long enough to hit the time limit will more than likely remain so.

Parents Behaving Responsibly

The bill specifically conditions some extensions on a parent’s compliance with her Individual Responsibility Plan, i.e., the set of activities she’s required to regularly engage in and the services she should receive.

Some parents may not qualify for any of those I’ve highlighted, but are dutifully following their plans. They too would qualify for extensions, as well they should, since they’re doing their best to move from welfare to work.

Families Likely to Suffer Specific Hardships

The bill would provide extensions for families that suffer certain hardships due, at least in part, to the very low benefits they receive — and for others that would suffer them without the benefits.

These include families that are homeless or likely to be. Also reprieved are those that would effectively cease to be families because the children would be put in foster care. This itself is a child protection — and anti-poverty — measure, since we’ve ample evidence that children who grow up in foster care tend to fare poorly.

More generally, all children would have some protection from poverty so dire it’s commonly referred to as “extreme.” Even if their parents didn’t get an exemption, their own share of their families’ benefits would continue until they themselves became ineligible — when they reached legal adulthood, for example.

Reprieves, Not Repeal of the Time Limit

The bill doesn’t extend benefits indefinitely for the families it would protect. Generally speaking, their cases would be reviewed every six months, though the Mayor could set longer review periods — a sensible choice, given the nature of some barriers.

The bill does, however, do more than avert worse hardships. It rolls back benefits for exempt families to what they would be if the DC Council, with then-Mayor Fenty’s apparently hearty approval, hadn’t established the across-the-board time limit.

Both the extensions and the rollback tacitly admit the policy was a mistake. And I suppose that’s the best we can hope for — at least, in the near term.

And near term is where we need to focus because, as I (and many others) have said, 6,000 or so families, including more than 13,000 children will have no TANF benefits unless the Mayor and Council agree to change the policy — and thus on a budget that covers the District’s share of the costs.


Budget Cap Will Cap Dad’s and Daughter’s Futures

October 19, 2015

I first met Peter* on a street corner, where he was selling Street Sense, the newspaper for homeless people in the District of Columbia. He now does work for me that I don’t have the strength for.

Peter has in-demand skills, but won’t seek a regular, full-time job because he has to drop whatever he’s doing to pick up his daughter Joanne — and sometimes rush her to a hospital.

She’s prone to seizures due to a severe case of epilepsy. She also has some developmental disabilities. Peter has sole responsibility for her, as well as an older daughter.

Though he must patch together short-term, flexible jobs, the family has a home and basic needs met. For this, we can partly credit the Supplemental Security Income benefits he receives on Joanne’s behalf.

The benefits are far from generous — $733 a month. This is far less than the estimated costs of raising a child with an intellectual disability, including the earnings a parent must forfeit.

Bills introduced in the last Congress would, among other things, have restored the value SSI benefits have lost. But they’d stand even less of a chance now than then.

Meanwhile, the caps on spending for non-defense programs that depend on annual appropriations threaten the special education Joanne is receiving.

She’s entitled to a free and appropriate education under federal law, but the amount states and the District receive to help pay for it comes from one of those programs — the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Peter recently enrolled Joanne in a program that focuses on independent living skills, both work-related and basic everyday. He’s thrilled by the progress he sees and his opportunities for “hands-on” involvement.

He can perhaps look forward to steadier, more gainful employment as Joanne becomes able to manage more on her own — to count cash, for example, wash clothes and prepare meals for herself and her family.

But she’ll gain such skills only if the program continues to receive enough money to provide the high-quality, individualized education that she and her fellow students need. The federal government surely hasn’t been doing its share.

The law that created IDEA commits the federal government to providing states with 40% of the average they spend per student, multiplied by the number of special education students they have.

Funds actually appropriated for the 2013-14 school year fell short by more than $20 billion, the Education Commission for the States reports, saying this is the most recent year it has figures for.

The under-funding didn’t begin with the Budget Control Act that’s responsible for the caps. But both the cut it initially made and the caps have caused IDEA grants for programs like Joanne’s a real-dollar loss of  9.6%, First Focus reports.

Now we’re less than two months away from the end of the short-term bill that’s keeping federal funds flowing to all the programs that depend on annual appropriations. It takes an across-the-board nick from the non-defense programs to keep spending on them below this year’s cap.

Both the House and Senate bills to fund Department of Education programs would provide very small increases for IDEA — nowhere near enough to make up for the shortfall. They may, in fact, not even support the same level and quality of services for the same number of children.

Whether the House and Senate will come together to pass an actual budget for education is an open question. What the squeeze on funding due to the budget cap isn’t.

The caps, recall, were never supposed to go into effect. They were intended as an incentive, if you will, for the bipartisan “super committee” to agree on a sensible plan for reducing the deficit.

A “sizable contingent” of Congressional Republicans still seem bound and determined to preserve the cap for non-defense programs. Defense, as I’ve previously noted, would get an increase through a backdoor.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is reportedly mulling over a “major” budget deal that would require cuts to Social Security and Medicare benefits, which don’t depend on annual appropriations. That’s almost surely going to mean no deal at all.

Everybody who lives in this country will suffer harms from the further ratcheting down of federal funding — some more directly than others. Peter and Joanne are mere drops in the ocean. But there are millions like them, doing their best in difficult situations — and vulnerable.

Large coalitions of advocacy organizations are campaigning to get Congress to #StoptheCuts — the hashtag they’ve been using on Twitter and will use for a Twitterstorm, i.e., massive blast of tweets, on Wednesday. This is an opportunity for all of you with Twitter accounts to ramp up the pressure.

You’ll see tweets to many blog posts invited and pulled together by Moms Rising. A shorter version of this post will probably be part of the “carnival.”

*  This isn’t his real name. I’ve changed both his and his daughter’s to preserve their privacy.


Much to Like (Though Not Everything) in Draft TANF Bill

August 27, 2015

The House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources styles its bill to revamp Temporary Assistance for Needy Families a discussion draft, indicating that it’s still a work in progress. A good thing that, since as I’ve already said, it’s far from problem-free.

The biggest problem, to my mind — and the one that may prove the biggest sticking point — is its failure to increase the block grant, which gets divvied up among states to help cover program costs.

The draft nevertheless has enough promising features for us to hope that it addresses this and other problems progressive experts have flagged.

Here’s a summary of features that particularly struck me, with apologies to you policy wonks and service providers who understandably would like more details. The law and the rules that govern what states must, may and can’t do are dauntingly complex.

A New TANF Purpose. Surprising as it may seem, the general purposes Congress has defined for TANF don’t include poverty reduction. The discussion draft would.

What it wouldn’t do, however, is hold states accountable for reducing poverty among families that participated in their TANF programs. Nor for those their programs currently serve — let alone all they should.

A dismal record on several counts. The new purpose wouldn’t improve it. But at least one other feature could. (Read on.)

Expanded Work Activity Options. Few features of the current TANF law are as problematic as the limits on activities states can count toward their required work participation rates, i.e., the targets they supposedly have to hit to avert penalties. (Again, read on and you’ll understand why “supposedly.”)

On the one hand, we’ve got core activities, which states can count for all the hours they’re supposed to have parents engaged, and non-core activities, which states can count only for parents who engage in core activities for a specified minimum number of hours per week.

On the other hand, we’ve got limits on countable core activity time for participation in vocational education programs, other education programs directly related to employment and high school attendance. The first counts only for a year — and for no more than 30% of parents. The latter two only for parents still in their teens.

Together, these tend to deny TANF parents opportunities to gain the formal education credentials and marketable skills, including basic literacy, that will enable them to get jobs that pay enough to support themselves as their children — or indeed, any jobs at all.

One need only look at the unemployment rate for all but the youngest working-age adults who don’t have a high school diploma or the equivalent for evidence of one of the defects in the current scheme.

The draft would extend the vocational education limit to two years and the high school age limit to twenty-five. It leaves open the question of whether to adjust the voc. ed. cap.

It also loosens up countable time restrictions that could benefit TANF parents ready to enter the workforce — or far from ready. For example, states could count toward their work participation rates more job search time and more time in so-called job readiness activities like mental health counseling.

Simplified Work Participation Rate. What states can count toward their required work participation rates depends not only on how the rules classify activities, but on whether participants are in one-parent or two-parent families. More core activity hours required for the latter.

The end result of these various distinctions is a large administrative burden, as you can imagine. The director of a nonprofit partnership that provides TANF services recently testified that their career counselors spend more than half their time on documentation.

The draft would do away with both the core/non-core distinction and the so-called marriage penalty, i.e., the higher work participation rate for parents who are living together. It would also allow states to get partial credit toward their rate for certain parents who participate for fewer hours than the standard minimum.

Steps Toward Accountability for Results. Though the draft doesn’t hold states accountable for poverty reduction, it does require them to measure two related outcomes — employment and median wages for parents who recently left the program.

States would have to measure these outcomes for all parents who no longer receive cash assistance, whether because they’ve moved from welfare to work or for some less hopeful reason, e.g., because they’d reached the end of their state’s time limit.

CLASP, among others, has alerted the subcommittee to problems with the outcome measures. But making states responsible for what their work-related services achieve, rather than merely parents’ participation in them is another smart, overdue move.

No More Caseload Reduction Credit. Many states have had a deuce of a time meeting the work participation rates. They face a penalty — loss of some of their block grant funds — if they don’t.

But they can avert the penalty by reducing the number of families they serve. They’ve thus got an incentive to keep eligible families out of their programs and to get those who’ve surmounted the barriers out — work-ready or otherwise.

As I’ve written before, states — and the District of Columbia — impose sanctions, up to and including full benefits cut-offs when parents don’t do what they’ve been told to. Or rather, when some authority decides they haven’t.

A family that’s lost its benefits altogether doesn’t count as part of the caseload. So it’s not surprising to learn that some agencies have seized on every occasion to impose so-called full family sanctions — or in some cases, reportedly trumped one up.

The discussion draft would eliminate the caseload reduction credit — and thus, one hopes, overuse of sanctions, which inevitably punish children.

These aren’t the only features that make the draft a surprisingly strong step toward improving the altogether worst part of our safety net. (Ruthless cutting here to control post length.)

What will come of the draft remains to be seen. But we can at least hope for a bill with all the draft’s good features, plus good revisions, good answers to the open questions and a substantial block grant increase.

Better that than to focus on the hurdles such a bill would have to clear to get to the President’s desk.

Note: Those of you who wish I’d left the other features in may find them in two of the publicly accessible sources I used — comments by CLASP’s chief TANF expert and testimony by her counterpart at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.


Looking Back, Around and Forward As Head Start Turns 50

June 8, 2015

Head Start’s recent 50th anniversary inspired diverse celebrations. Rather wish a post from me had been one of them. But late is better than never. And in this case, late is better than a timelier post would have been because I’ve got the benefits of a thoughtful, thought-provoking post by Olivia Golden, the Executive Director at CLASP.

She singles out some of the lessons Head Start can teach us, including some it wouldn’t have if federal policymakers had pulled the plug on the program, as some earlier research suggested they should — or at least, was used to that end.

Among the lessons is one I’ve been reading about in various contexts — the effectiveness of two-generation strategies, i.e., policies and programs that focus on the needs of both children and their parents. These needs, though seemingly distinct, converge in the goal of enabling parents to raise healthy, well-balanced, successful children.

In the case of Head Start, local programs have included caseworkers to help parents work through issues common to low-income families. Some offer adult education and/or job training and placement services.

At the same time, programs have offered parents opportunities to participate in decision-making — a version of the community-based model found also in other programs launched as the War on Poverty. This is not only empowering, but skill-building, as anyone who’s tried to influence a group (or merely get it to closure) knows.

Parents could also participate in the child education components of their Head Start programs. The results, Golden says, disproved myths about poor parents, e.g., that they don’t care about their children’s education.

Other programs now reflect the two-generation approach. The home visiting programs I’ve occasionally mentioned are a good example. “Preschool in its earliest form,” the Washington Post called them.

But they’re more than that, as the article shows. The visitors help parents — mostly moms — learn how to care for their babies and toddlers. They screen both them and the children for potential health and developmental problems and for abuse in the home. They refer them to healthcare and other services, including education and job training.

So we’ve got multi-faceted, two-generation programs feeding into Head Start, either directly or through the Early Start offshoot for three-year-olds. Overly narrow feeding chain, however. (See below.)

Some programs combine early education for children with basic adult education for their parents. In D.C., for example, The Family Place offers concurrent age-based classes for young children and English as a Second Language for their parents.

We find other family, i.e., two-generation, literacy programs here, including one at Mary’s Center, which offers parents not only ESL and a parenting component, but computer skills training.

In both cases, the organizations also provide other services for both children and their parents. So we again see two sorts of integration and capacities to tailor services to individual needs.

Both organizations serve principally, though not exclusively Hispanic immigrant families. I mention this because Golden flags the link between Head Start and the civil rights movement, which birthed one of our broadest federal civil rights laws only a year before Congress approved the first War on Poverty programs.

“For 50 years,” she says, “Head Start has stood for a vision of the United States that sees promise in all young children, including those in the poorest families, and that reaches out across barriers of race, ethnicity and income to make that promise real.”

That’s the vision, but we’re clearly not living up to it. Nearly 20% of U.S. children lived in poverty in 2013, according to the Census Bureau’s official measure. Bad enough. But the poverty rates for black and Hispanic children were much worse — 38.3% and 30.4%.*

Golden concludes by asking, “What can we do from here?” She refers to “a different future,” based on what we’ve learned over the last 50 years. But she focuses mainly on what we must do now — protect Head Start and other programs that give low-income children a better start in life.

The budget plans the House and Senate have passed set the stage for further cuts in non-defense discretionary programs like Head Start. Total cuts would average about $50 billion a year, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports. These, recall, would come on top of cuts the 2011 Budget Control Act as already required.

Though Congress ultimately restored what Head Start lost, the current budget plans would translate into an estimated 35,000 fewer children in the program next fiscal year — this as compared to what the President has proposed. An additional 122,000 would lose the opportunity by Fiscal Year 2018.

Only 45% of eligible four-year-olds are in Head Start now, Golden says — and a mere 4% in Early Start. Last year, federally-funded home visiting programs served only 115,545 parents and children.

Yet the recently-renewed Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Visiting program will get, at most, a measly $400 million a year — not a penny more than it’s got now. That, of course, means less in real dollars.

What lessons we should draw from all this I’ll leave to you.

* These are figures CLASP reported. They presumably reflect analyses of data the Census Bureau puts online.

Public Higher Education Once Affordable for All, Should Be Again

June 1, 2015

Just settled back in after a visit to Iowa. No, I’m not running for President. I mention the trip because it’s a springboard into an issue I’ve wanted to blog on for some time — higher education costs.

I joined my extended family in Iowa City to celebrate the graduations of my nieces — Cecilia (Ceci) from high school and Lola from college. They’ll both be attending their first-choice schools — Georgetown University for Ceci and University of Iowa for Lola, where she’ll begin a doctoral program in physical therapy.

They’ve earned these opportunities. And, of course, we’re all delighted that they’ll move forward on the paths they’ve chosen. Hard to see how they could if their parents hadn’t prudently set money aside — or hadn’t had the extra to save.

The sticker price for Ceci’s freshman year — tuition, room and board only — will exceed the costs of my four years at a high-ranked private college. No way she could could earn more than a fraction while also attending her classes, keeping up with assigned readings, researching and writing the required papers, etc.

I’m not sure she could borrow enough to cover her college costs. If she could, the debt burden she’d graduate with would severely limit her career choices — especially, though not only those that require advanced degrees.

What got my going on this topic, however, is that Ceci’s college education would have cost more than mine if she’d enrolled in one of her home state universities.

That’s what Lola will do. And even if she were as poor as the proverbial church mouse, there’d be no federal grant to defray some portion of her tuition and other costs.

Back in the day, as my late husband Jesse used to say, education at a public university was virtually free for in-state students. I paid $75 a semester in fees for my graduate education at the University of California. Jesse also.

We finished up just in time. Then-Governor Ronald Reagan decided to hike the fees, instituting what was, for all intents and purposes, tuition.

Cal now officially charges tuition, as well as fees. These costs of attendance have grown over time. They’re now about $12,800 a year for in-state students. We can’t blame all this on Reagan, much as some of us would like to — and as some have.

All but three states are spending less, per student, than they were before the recession set in — thus passing on their budget crunches to their public colleges and universities. The institutions have responded by hiking tuition, as well as by cutting faculty positions, course offerings and other resources that help ensure both quality and breadth.

Tuition at four-year public colleges has risen, on average, by 29% just since the 2007-8 school year. In six states, including California, increases top 60%.

These are only recent increases. States and their public higher education institutions began shifting costs to students well before the recession. Real dollar increases were, in fact, bigger three decades ago. But each before and since builds on all that came before.

As you may have read, Senator and Presidential-candidate Bernie Sanders has proposed a pair of bills that would, among other things, provide states with a large financial incentive to eliminate undergraduate tuition and fees at their public colleges and universities.

The Washington Post‘s Wonkblog wasted on time in telling us that the “free college” plan wouldn’t work. Others, including several Post columnists, argued against it for other reasons, e.g., diminished quality, unwarranted entitlement for high-income families.

Still others have argued — and for some time now — that the cost crunches universities face are of their own making. Administrative bloat, inordinate spending on athletics, reluctance to embrace technological substitutes for the traditional classroom model, etc.

I don’t want to wade into that thicket here. My point is simply that something should be done to again make higher education affordable for lower-income students and their families.

It wouldn’t reduce income inequality because that’s a function of how our system distributes the income our economy generates. It surely could increase economic mobility, however, especially for people born at the bottom of the income scale.

There’s “stickiness” at both ends, the research shows. But college graduates were more than five times as likely to move up from the bottom fifth than those without the degree.

We’d still need to invest more — and smartly — in lower-level education and other programs that help level the playing field for children who don’t have the advantages that partly account for my nieces’ academic successes, e.g., ample, healthful food, decent, stable housing, safe neighborhoods, parents with the time, interest and education to read to them, help with homework, take them to interesting places, etc.

But children without these advantages have long graduated from high school with a sound foundation for further education. And they’ve gone on to graduate from public colleges and universities — some with flying colors and without the career-limiting debt burdens too many now face.

We’ve never had genuine equal educational opportunity in this country. We know a good bit about how to expand it. And in some ways, we are. But we need, among other things, to reverse the regression by restoring free — or near-free — public higher education.

This would not only comport with our widely-shared vision of the American dream. It would produce a high return on our tax dollar investment. We’d have a larger, more diverse bank of human capital. We need that, we’re told, to drive economic growth.

But we also need well-educated people free to follow their passion for social justice by providing services and advocacy for poor and near-poor people who, for various reasons, won’t have a college degree — and for their children, who might if we care to make that possible.




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