Yawning Opportunity Gap for Our Kids Because We Don’t View Them All As Ours

November 27, 2016

A recently-published book by Professor Robert Putnam warns that the American Dream is in crisis. We’ve had ample evidence of the symptoms for some time. But the fundamental issues Putnam raises seem to me more relevant than ever.

Other research has already told us that children who grow up in low-income families tend to remain low-income as adults, who then have low-income children, etc. Conversely, children who grow up in well-off families generally remain well-off. And so forth.

We’ve also had research showing that whom you’re born to has become more determinative in the last 30 or 40 years — a major point for Putnam.

He focuses on two related reasons. First, the “opportunity gap,” i.e., disparities in the resources parents and communities invest in children, has grown.

And second, we no longer think of everybody’s children as “our kids” because families have become increasingly segregated by income, education, neighborhood and related measures.

Thus, well-off families invest in their own children and what their own children will directly benefit from, e.g., the schools they attend. But they neither know much nor care much about the opportunities for children in the depressed neighborhoods across town.

We’re on our way to becoming a society where class is hereditary, he told a recent gathering (and those of us virtually present). The graphs he showed confirmed the basis for the alarm bells he’s trying to set off.

He referred to most of them as “scissors graphs” because the lines tracking the developmental opportunities children have grow further and further apart over time. Likewise factors he views as related, e.g., two parents in the home.

Now, the opportunities he dwells on don’t altogether explain why children born to poor and near-poor parents tend to remain stuck in the bottom fifth of the income scale.

Those resources their parents don’t have include money for food, decent, stable housing in a safe neighborhood, high-quality child care (unless they’re among the shrinking number for whom it’s subsidized), diapers …. Well, I needn’t go on with this inventory.

We know from other research that food insecurity, homelessness or even just moving from one home to another and then another and the stress parents inevitably communicate when they’re struggling with such things all put children at a disadvantage in the classroom.

We know that low-income children often don’t benefit from high-quality early education. Lack of resources, parental and public, mean that inequalities begin at “the starting gate,” as the Economic Policy Institute entitles its report on the problem.

This, I think, is why Putnam says that schools aren’t to blame for the widening income gap, though they don’t narrow it either. But he cites a related factor that, in his view, is — the unequal opportunities children have to participate in extracurricular activities.

Playing organized sports or in a band or orchestra, he says, teaches teamwork and develops what’s now often called grit — the will to keep working at something, despite setbacks and frustrations.

All children used to have opportunities of this sort. They now cost, on average, $800 a year, he says. That’s nothing, of course, for well-off parents, but more than some low-income parents can afford.

Even low-income children who beat the odds and not only graduate from high school, but go on to college don’t overcome the opportunity gap. Only 29% who scored high on standardized tests graduate, while 74% of high-income students do.

The difference here, Putnam says, is mostly not tuition costs or the formidable loans that all but well-off students must incur to gain a degree.

It’s rather a reflection of the investments parents made much earlier — the time they spent interacting with their infants and toddlers, the dinners that brought the whole family together, the religious services they attended, etc.

What this seems to mean is that the low-income students are in some way not prepared for college, test scores notwithstanding. I find this baffling.

Even if what Putnam calls our “pay to play” extracurricular system denied them an opportunity develop grit, they surely have it or they wouldn’t have learned what those test scores reflect, given the well-known problems of the schools they’re likely to have attended.

More baffling is the way he slides over the link between early opportunities children have — or don’t — and the color of their skin, a point the Washington Post‘s reviewer touched on.

If the time and money parents have to invest in their children is correlated to their income, then race discrimination, both past and present, deserves far more attention.

Putanm tends to use parental education, rather than income per se in his analyses — this, it seems, because he’s most concerned about the divide between social classes.

We’ve always had large racial disparities in college-level degrees. But even blacks who’ve graduated from college generally get paid less than whites, as the Economic Policy Institute’s analyses show.

If relatively more low-income children have only a mother to provide the interactions he views as so critical, it’s partly because most low-income women (like their better-off counterparts) want to marry reliable breadwinners.

So the disadvantages black men suffer in our labor market, e.g., higher unemployment rates, lower wages, help explain why a high percent of black mothers are single.

If low-income black children don’t always have fathers investing quality time in them, it’s also in part because our criminal justice system puts a disproportionate number of black men behind bars, thus giving them an additional disadvantage when they’re released.

And if communities consist of class-based enclaves, that’s partly because of discriminatory zoning and other housing policies — and discriminatory practices by lenders, real estate agents and landlords.

Putnam’s nevertheless right in saying that policy choices have widened the opportunity gap — and that policy choices can narrow it. Those he recommends are themselves fairly narrow.

This perhaps is because, as he stresses, he’s trying to start a national conversation about a problem that’s got no simple, quick fixes. But it’s also because he’s focused on children, especially the very young — and on what could conceivably prove politically feasible.

So nothing new here, as Jill Lepore’s account in The New Yorker says. But we don’t need new as much as do. And, as she also (sort of) says, we can’t count on much do from our federal policymakers.

The book is nevertheless timely — more so than I think Putnam expected — because it calls on us to consider whom we view as our kids and, more broadly, as members of our community.


Income Growth Did a Lot to Push Poverty Rates Down

September 14, 2016

I think my quick-off-the-dime post on the new official poverty rates didn’t give enough credit to household income increases as a reason they virtually all declined. Progressive analysts quickly heralded the significant income growth the new report shows.

The “typical family’s income,” i.e., the median for all households, increased by a record amount, whether you look at the dollars or the year-over-year percent, said Center on Budget and Policy Priorities President Robert Greenstein.

The one-year real-dollar growth was greatest for the bottom fifth of the income scale, the Economic Policy Institute reported, while stressing that all but the top five percent still haven’t fully recovered from the Great Recession.

So here’s a brief look at the income side of the ledger — and a few policy-related remarks.

The “typical family” gained a bit over $2,800, making for an estimated 5.2% increase. All the major types of households the Census Bureau reports on, e.g., married couples, single-mother families, gained in varying amounts.

Likewise all the major race/ethnicity groups. Most of those that had suffered the worst losses during the Great Recession gained the most, EPI later noted. But the percent gains didn’t vary much. So the gaps remain very large.

The median income for black households, for example, was roughly $26,000 less than the median for white non-Hispanic households — and the median for Hispanic households $17,800 less.

But the median for Asian households topped them all at $77,166. This confirms the underlying disparities I noted in reporting the Asian poverty rate.

We also see continuing marked disparities between married couples with children and single-parent families — single-mother families especially.

Their median income was about $37,800, as compared to $84,626 for the married couples. The estimated increase for both was about the same. So at least single-mother families seem not to be losing ground, though a far higher percent still lived in poverty.

Some Republicans predictably accentuated the negative. “Billions of dollars” invested each year, “but more than 43 million people continue to live in poverty,” said the House Ways and Means Committee Chairman.

But public policies do help account for the income gains — and thus the lower poverty rates. Greenstein cites several.

First off, the labor market is getting tighter — a factor economist/blogger Jared Bernstein stresses. Employers have generally found they have to pay more to get (and keep) the workers they need.

The Federal Reserve has done its share by keeping interest rates very low, rather than raising them, as it often has when the unemployment rate drops to a level that could trigger more than a miniscule inflation increase.

Second, employers in 23 states and the District of Columbia had to raise wages for their lowest-paid workers due to minimum wage increases. More local governments set their minimum wages above their state’s level — or had earlier passed laws requiring increases.

Minimum wage increases generally have what economists call “spillover effects,” i.e., raises employers put in place to preserve differences between their lowest-paid and somewhat better-paid workers.

So the recent increases almost surely help explain the higher median household incomes, perhaps especially the boost for the bottom fifth.

Yet “there is more to be done,” as the Coalition on Human Needs headlined its executive director’s response to the Census Bureau’s official and supplemental poverty measure reports. Even more to be done than the measures she singles out, as she would be the first to say.

I’ll follow her lead because once one really gets into what policymakers could do to raise incomes enough — and for enough people — to make poverty a rare, brief experience a post (or statement) turns into a treatise.

She does, however, make two points I’ll borrow because they speak to how I’ve gone at the new Census figures. One addresses the disparities in both poverty rates and incomes.

Steps like a federal minimum wage increase, funding to expand affordable child care and reforms in the Earned Income Tax Credit “wouldn’t just have the effect of lifting all boats.” They’d address income inequalities — not only between non-Hispanic whites and racial and ethnic minorities, but between men and women.

The other point is that we need to do all we can to ensure that our policymakers do no harm. Those grumblings about the billions foretell further efforts to cut federal anti-poverty programs until they can be drowned in a bathtub.

 

 


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.


Far More in King’s Dream Than a Color-Blind Society

January 18, 2016

Not long after Congress passed the since-enfeebled Voting Rights Act, Martin Luther King, Jr. turned his attention to poverty and income inequality.

This, for him, was clearly a next step, along with opposition to the country’s engagement in Vietnam. He and colleagues at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had launched a Poor People’s Campaign and were planning a demonstration akin to the original March on Washington.

King signaled the campaign’s agenda in a book entitled Where Do We Go From Here? — here being after the enactment of most of our major federal nondiscrimination laws.

His answer took off from a critique of the anti-poverty approach still reflected in many of our public policies. They proceed, he said, “from a premise that poverty is a consequence of multiple evils,” e.g., bad housing, lack of education.

Not a faulty notion, he implied. But it led to a piecemeal approach — “a housing program to transform living conditions, improved educational facilities,” etc. And the programs were neither coordinated nor sufficiently funded “to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.”

Beyond this, they all sought “to solve poverty by solving something else.” The solution to poverty is for everyone to have enough money. So “we must create full employment or we must create incomes” by establishing a guaranteed minimum.

The latter has garnered more attention — for two reasons, I’d guess. On the one hand, it seems radically progressive. On the other, it has conservative roots and current support from some minimum government types.

King had in mind something far more ambitious than proposals conservatives had floated or the version President Nixon wanted Congress to pass as a replacement for welfare. Likewise what Charles Murray more recently advocated as a substitute for all social welfare programs, including Social Security and Medicare.

King’s guaranteed income would “be pegged to the median income of society.” Once set there, it would increase automatically to maintain parity with the median.

It wouldn’t, on the other hand, go automatically to every adult or family. It would supplement, so far as necessary income gained from work and/or investments, which have always served as “an assured income for the wealthy,” he noted.

Now, one might think that full employment has gotten its proper share of attention too. But what King had in mind, as I understand it, differs significantly from the way it’s commonly understood, i.e., as a situation where everyone willing and able to work is working or merely between jobs.

This, for King, was necessary, but not sufficient. Recall that he was killed in Memphis, where he’d gone to support a strike by black sanitation workers. They had employment obviously. They were demanding safer working conditions, a wage increase and recognition of their union.

“It is criminal,” King said there, “to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income.” With “wages so low,” the working poor — as most poor people in the country were, he said — “cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation.” In other words, poverty-level wages were a form of segregation.

King’s Memphis message grew out of the Freedom Budget developed by two other civil rights leaders. It called for, among other things, a higher minimum wage, unemployment benefits and compensation for workers injured on the job.

As the Poor People’s Campaign got in gear, the $2 an hour minimum wage the Freedom Budget called for had become a living wage. And jobs for everyone who could work had become “meaningful” jobs, including at least a million more providing “socially useful” careers in public service.

King himself had broadened the meaning of full employment in another way too. He noted — astutely, given the anxieties triggered by the first spate of big-city riots — that “Negro youth … are the explosive outsiders of the American expansion.”

Many “have left the labor market completely,” having “faced so many closed doors and so many crippling defeats.” They “are alienated from the routines of work” and so will initially “require work situations which permit flexibility.”

The jobs will also develop skills. They will nevertheless be jobs, not training, which often “becomes a way of avoiding the issue of unemployment.”

Ultimately, full employment, so understood, will help solve other major problems cited in the Freedom Budget — or so supporters thought. It would, of course, generate revenues to “finance improvements we all need,” including “decent housing” to replace the clusters that form slums.

At the same time, workers would have the wherewithal “to do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay,” as King’s Where Do We Go argued. And blacks, who were disadvantaged by discrimination, as well as poverty would have “the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.”

King hoped that the guaranteed income proposal would provide the basis for a biracial coalition, since two-thirds of the country’s poor were white. The Freedom Budget drafters — and presumably King, since he endorsed it for the SLCC — had similar hopes for full employment.

“The workings of our economy,” they said, “often pit the white poor and the black poor against each other.” They termed that “a tragedy.”

Likewise the fact “that groups only one generation removed from poverty themselves, haunted by the memory of scarcity and fearful of slipping back, step on the fingers of those struggling up the ladder.” Anyone who sees no relevance to current events is blessedly insulated from the Presidential campaigns.

We have, however, made progress, in some respects, since King unfolded his dream of an end to segregation and other then-legal forms of discrimination. Not saying we don’t have a long way to go before black children (and adults) are no longer “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But progress nonetheless.

We’d be hard put, I think, to find anything like such progress toward King’s dream of a society where no one is poor and everyone has, at all times, enough income to live on and then some. Worth pondering as we celebrate his birthday.


Supreme Court Fair Housing Decision Means More Than May Appear

June 29, 2015

Quite a morning at the Supreme Court last Thursday. As you all know, a six-member majority preserved affordable health insurance for low and moderate-income people — and not only the 6.4 million whose subsidies were at immediate risk, for reasons I explained.

The Court also, by the slimmest possible majority, ruled that the Fair Housing Act prohibits policies and practices that have a discriminatory effect, even if an intent to discriminate can’t be proved.

This is how the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has interpreted the law — and how virtually all lower courts have interpreted it for 40 years, including all at the appellate level that have considered the issue.

But the ruling came as a pleasant surprise because advocates thought the Court wouldn’t have agreed to hear the case if it wasn’t likely to rule the interpretation over-broad.

The ruling removes a threat to HUD’s efforts to combat racial segregation, both the legacy of deliberately discriminatory policies and the effects of current policies and practices.

The just-decided case involved one of the latter — a local housing authority’s disproportionate awards of tax credits to developers with plans to locate low-cost housing in predominantly black inner-city neighborhoods.

The ruling will free HUD, from a legal standpoint, to issue a final version of its rule spelling out its responsibility — and thus the responsibility of state and local agencies — to “affirmatively further” equal housing opportunity, as the FHA requires.

This, in itself, has broader implications than the obvious because equal opportunities to rent and buy housing are closely linked to other opportunities — most, though not all related to advantages of living in a neighborhood where most fellow residents aren’t poor.

These include living closer to where a decent number of decent-paying jobs are available and/or to convenient public transportation, ready access to full-service grocery stores, better-funded — and therefore, generally better — nearby schools and less exposure to toxics in the environment, not to mention flying bullets.

They are all reasons that a plethora of research has found that place matters — including, as I wrote awhile ago, for children’s future prospects of moving up the income scale from the bottom fifth.

Now, it’s not only housing discrimination — intentional or otherwise — that tends to perpetuate income inequality and, with it, downright income insufficiency. We have ample evidence of discrimination in hiring, pay, promotions and the like.

We know that state and local funding for public schools can deny equal educational opportunities to children in high-poverty districts, which are often (though not always) predominantly black or Hispanic. And we’ve got evidence of what certainly seems to be discrimination in the way schools deal with students who’ve allegedly violated the rules.

Discrimination of these sorts affects not only racial and ethnic minorities, of course, but other groups our major federal civil rights laws are supposed to protect, e.g., women, people with disabilities, those whose religious beliefs and/or practices relegate them to minority status.

I’m off on what may seem an excursion because, as a lawyer-advocate friend of mine noted, the disparate impact (or effects) standard the Supreme Court upheld has also long been the basis for enforcement of the other laws.

What I, like many others said about fair housing applies equally to employment and to education, health care, social services, transportation and other programs that receive or benefit from federal funds.

You’re rarely, if ever going to be able to prove that a policy or practice has a greater negative impact on people who belong to a protected class because that’s what it was intended to do.

And indeed, some policies and practices with disparate impacts probably aren’t intentional, but rather “unconscious prejudices,” as Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, said. Some, indeed, may not reflect prejudices at all, but a casual acceptance of the status quo, failures to think through consequences or not caring to address them.

Those policies and practices are nonetheless contrary to what Congress intended back in the days when it sought to level the playing field for people unjustly denied opportunities essential for upward mobility, personal well-being and full participation in our social and political institutions.

A decision for plaintiffs in the FHA case wouldn’t automatically have extended the overly-narrow intent standard throughout the fabric of our civil rights protections. But it would have given a new entering wedge to parties interested in constricting their reach.

So an altogether good Thursday at the Supreme Court. And as you all know, a great Friday too.


Low-Income Children Can Move Up If They Grow Up in a Good Place

June 11, 2015

We know you’ve got to choose the right parents if you want to wind up higher on the income scale — or so the research tells us. Now we’ve got a massive data analysis telling us they’ve got to choose the right zip code. And they’ve got to do it while you’re young, preferably before you turn ten.

The analysis was the focal point of a recent “conversation” about place, opportunity and policy hosted by the Brookings Institution. Featured speaker was the lead analyst, Harvard economics professor Raj Chetty.

Some mind-opening data, a handful of policy recommendations and a striking (to me) focus on race discrimination. Summary, brief as I could make it, follows.

Place Matters for Children’s Future, With Caveats

Children born in the bottom fifth of the income scale have a much better chance of moving to the top fifth as adults if they grow up in a community that gives them and their families advantages like decent schools, safe homes and streets, ready access to jobs and beneficial networks. No surprise here. But new numbers, some surprising.

Chances for low-income children raised in Washington, D.C. are 10.5%. This is better than the national average — 7.5%. And it’s a whole lot better than their counterparts’ chances in most of the deep South. But their chances would be better if they’d grown up in San Jose, California, hub of the Silicon Valley.

Shifting the income level, as the breakouts do, children whose families have incomes in the bottom quarter of the income scale will earn 5.8% more as young adults if they grow up in D.C. than if they’d grown up in “an average place.” But if they’d grown up in nearby Fairfax County, they could look forward to more than double that relative income gain.

In short, place matters, as another recent study also showed. This one, also co-authored by Chetty, reevaluated results of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Moving to Opportunity pilot.

Families got housing vouchers, but only if they moved to lower-poverty neighborhoods. An earlier evaluation measured increases in parents’ employment and income. Basically, zip.

But when Chetty and his colleagues looked at how preteens fared as adults, they found a 31% boost in earnings, compared to peers whose families didn’t get the MTO vouchers. This, I would guess, is at least partly because the young MTO beneficiaries had a higher college attendance rate.

For older children, however, moves to opportunity had negative effects on earnings, as well as other measures. The disruption of the move outweighed the advantages of living in a higher-income neighborhood, the researchers say.

What Public Policies Could Do

At the highest plane, these findings support two policy thrusts. The first is to help more families move out of high-poverty neighborhoods — and to do so while their children are very young. That would seem to require more housing vouchers, perhaps with subsidies scaled to encourage use in mixed-income neighborhoods.

But there’d have to be more relatively low-cost housing in those neighborhoods too. Several panelists at the Brookings event had quite a bit to say about exclusionary zoning, e.g., density limits that cap building height and/or prohibit multi-unit housing.

At the same time, it’s both practically and theoretically infeasible to move all poor and near-poor families out of high-poverty neighborhoods. And not all families want to move, fearing loss of “social capital,” e.g., connection to a local congregation, supportive friends nearby.

So the second major policy thrust is to improve those neighborhoods. Oddly, Chetty and panelists didn’t delve into the how issue, though one recommended diversifying public housing locations so as to dilute the poverty concentration.

Discussion focused mostly on affording families in high-poverty neighborhoods access to opportunities elsewhere — better schools especially. Recurrent, favorable references to vouchers, lotteries and charter schools. One panelist also mentioned redrawn public school attendance zones.

Chetty himself believes we need more “big data” analyses to pinpoint initiatives that would make economically-disadvantaged neighborhoods less disadvantageous for the children growing up in them.

But he did cite possibilities, based on his research to date — specifically, neighborhood characteristics correlated to better (and worse) outcomes for kids. Big news here is that the race in the place matters a lot.

Race Matters for All Children

We all know now, if we didn’t before that our public safety and criminal justice systems often make life worse — if they don’t end it — for residents in predominantly black neighborhoods. The victims are usually blacks.

What Chetty’s research tells us is that the racial makeup of a neighborhood affects economic mobility for whites, as well as blacks. Outcomes worsen as black density increases for both, he said.

We don’t need his research, though we’ve got it now to identify major factors — under-funded schools with over-crowded classrooms, less experienced teachers and insufficient resources to mitigate disadvantages that impair children’s ability to learn, lack of convenient public transportation, etc.

What Policies Have Done and Could

Plowing more money into the schools, transportation systems and the like would seem a solution to the drag on upward mobility that living in a predominantly black neighborhood exerts. And indeed, it is, but not the only one. Nor sufficient because it would address symptoms, but not root causes.

Several panelists zeroed in on the latter. Predominantly black neighborhoods —  and their attendant disadvantages — didn’t just happen, they stressed. The neighborhoods reflect housing segregation policies dating back to the 1920s.

And we’ve still got policies that perpetuate segregation. More widespread private-sector practices, however, e.g., selective treatment by real estate agents, egregiously unequal mortgage loan terms.

The 1968 Fair Housing Act was supposed to dismantle segregation and prevent further discrimination on various bases, including race.

But weak and/or co-opted local agencies let business go on as usual. And HUD has never had to resources to effectively enforce the law. Nor has it always been allowed to do what it could, as a ProPublica report indicates.

HUD has proposed new rules that would put teeth into the Fair Housing Act’s requirement that it — and thus state and local agencies — “affirmatively further” the purposes of the law. The final rules — assuming they’re issued and enforced — could make place matter less for low-income children’s chances of moving up the income scale. Make life better for their parents too.

But they won’t make every place a launching pad for upward mobility. For that, we need a broader range of policy initiatives. Bigger investments in equalizing opportunities too.

 

 


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.