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.


Bits on Uphill Battles — and Downward Falls

August 13, 2012

Another scrapbook of fragments that didn’t get into posts I’ve written, plus some thoughts I had along the way.

Winning Battles, But Not the War

As I wrote about amendments that didn’t get into the Senate’s Farm Bill, I realized, again, what hard times we progressive advocates face.

Basically, we’re reduced to giving thanks — even to legislators themselves — because bills that affect low-income people aren’t as bad as they could have been.

We see this not only nationally, but here in the District of Columbia.

The Fair Budget Coalition, for example, proclaimed victories when high priorities, e.g., homeless services, a delay in further TANF benefits cuts, got into the list of things that will get funding if the Chief Financial Officer predicts more revenues — lots more — than the estimate the budget was built on.

Not faulting FBC  here, especially when the coalition — and others — averted some truly harmful cuts and got some money back in the Housing Production Trust Fund as well.

But I long for victories that actually move us forward.

Upward Mobility in Black and White

My recent post on the Pew Center’s economic mobility report alluded to its findings on blacks born to low-income parents. I’d wanted to include them, but the draft was already pushing against my somewhat indulgent word-count limit.

So here they are, plus some additional race gap facts.

  • The percent of blacks who grew up in the bottom fifth of the income scale is nearly six times greater than the percent of whites — 65% as compared to 11%.
  • More than half (53%) of blacks stay there, while only a third of whites do.
  • Well over half (56%) of blacks raised in the middle fifth fell down to the second or bottom fifth as adults. Less than a third (32%) of whites raised in the middle fell.

What about blacks in the top two fifths? The Pew analysts say the percent — even for both together — is too small to calculate mobility “with statistical certainty.”

Not, I think, surprising. What is to me is how much more slippery the middle rung on the ladder is for blacks.

Disparities in parental income, education and employment opportunities — all in part reflecting persistent race discrimination — can explain why it’s harder for blacks born at the bottom to climb the ladder.

But what accounts for the greater downward mobility — the reverse, if you will, of the American Dream?

Part of the answer apparently is that the median family income for blacks is lower than for whites in every fifth that can be reliability estimated. So even a relatively small income loss can drop them into the next fifth down.

But the plummet to the bottom fifth calls for more explanation than I can ferret out of the report.

Life Is Unfair, in Economese

Found this in a very wonky paper by economists Flavio Cunha and James Heckman: “The best documented market failure in the life cycle of skill formation … is the inability of children to buy their parents and the lifetime resources they provide.”

In other words, children born to parents who’ve got the education, temperament, time and money to invest in developing their cognitive and noncognitive skills, e.g., perseverance, self-control, aversion to risky behaviors, are more likely to become economically and socially successful than children who by “accident of birth” have parents who don’t.

We knew this, of course. And the Pew report indirectly confirms it. But whoever knew it was a defect in our free market system?


Income Ladder Hard to Climb If You’re Born at the Bottom, New Report Shows

July 26, 2012

Many news stories and opinion pieces on the latest report from the Pew Center’s Economic Mobility Project — as well there might be.

Because “pursuing the American dream,” as the report is entitled, could be as rewarding as chasing a will o’ the wisp — especially for those born to low-income parents and most especially of all if they’re black.

At the very least, the report gives the lie to our “rags to riches” story. It’s “more of a Hollywood fairytale than an actual reality,” says Ethan Gelling at the Corporation for Economic Development, echoing the Pew project manager.

I think we need to parse the data into two separate issues, as the Pew analysts also do.

One is economic mobility as measured by movement up or down the quintiles into which income is commonly divided.

As the Pew analysts say, economic growth — especially at the top — puts the major rungs on the income ladder further apart. Obviously harder then to climb from one to another.

That’s how we can have what, at first blush, seem two contradictory findings. On the one hand, 93% of adults in the bottom fifth have family incomes higher than their parents did. On the other hand, only 57% move up into a higher fifth — and only 13% into one of the top two fifths.

Some argue that the root cause, i.e., the grossly disproportionate distribution of the wealth our economy generates, is bad in and of itself.

Rakim Brooks at Demos, for example, warns that the public as a whole loses trust in institutions “when it begins to associate the rich with the fortunes of the country.”

Others have said that income inequality is partly responsible for the credit crunch so many households now find themselves in.

People, they say, often define their wants upward, based on what they see richer folks have. They buy — or rather, make down payments on — houses they can’t afford. They put all sorts of “status-defining” goods on credits cards — enormous flat-screened TVs, designer accessories, etc.

I’m rather more preoccupied with the second issue. Do people in the bottom fifth have enough to live on, plus a modicum of what the Pew analysts call wealth and some others refer to as assets?

Do they, in other words, have a reserve for costly emergencies? A cushion against plain old hard times? Some resources to give their children a good start in life?

The answer from the Pew project is a resounding No.

The median income of families in the bottom fifth was a paltry $19,202 in 2009 — nearly $2,850 below the federal poverty line for a family of four.

And their median wealth, i.e., assets like home equity, money in the bank, a car, was just $2,748 — about $4,690 less than the bottom fifth had a generation ago.

The two figures are, I assume, closely related. If you’re, at best, making barely enough for basic needs, you’re not squirreling away money for a rainy day — let alone investing in mutual funds and the like that will, in the long run, make your nest egg grow.

Why families in the bottom fifth are in such bad straits is a much more complex question. Panelists at a recent all-day conference co-hosted by Demos and partners went at it from many angles.

I’ll mention here only what seemed one broad consensus. A college education — at the very least, enough to earn an associate’s degree or certificate — is a big part of the solution.

Yet, as we know, college is getting very expensive. Pell grants, which the lowest fifth could qualify for, rarelyt cover the costs — and now have new restrictions that tend to rule out self-supporting work during enrollment.

I don’t suppose I need to say anything about loan burdens — except perhaps to note that they surely seem especially formidable for potential students in the bottom fifth, whose prospects for moving up the income scale are iffy, at best.

Yet the Pew figures indicate that their families can’t help them.

Nor, indeed, will the parents all have the resources to provide what their infants and toddlers need to do well when they start school, e.g., a healthful diet, high-quality child care, time to read to them, take them to the zoo, etc.

Fewer than half of poor children are “school ready” when they start kindergarten, according to a study from the Brookings Institution. Three-quarters of children in families with moderate and high incomes are.

And when you start behind, you tend to stay behind, as some Pew figures on reading skills show.

Not surprising then that the dropout rate for low-income students is five times the rate for students from high-income families.

This is one way that income inequality passes from generation to generation. Not just inequality, but poverty too.


Traditional Values Get New Packaging

October 15, 2009

The launch issue of National Affairs includes a lengthy and thought-provoking article by Ron Haskins, co-director of the Brooking Institution’s Center on Children and Families.

Basically, Haskins seeks to shift the debate on anti-poverty policies from income inequality to upward mobility. After all, he says, the American dream isn’t economic equality. It’s the chance to get ahead.

The first part of the article marshals economic studies to show that income inequality in the U.S. isn’t really as great as it’s commonly said to be–or increasing as much as alleged.

But this effort to correct the inequality story is just a preamble to the heart of the argument. Haskins dives into that with an account of what he and Brookings colleagues found when they analyzed long-term data on economic mobility together with data on employment, family composition, education and other personal characteristics.

These, he says, are what really matter because the reasons people are poor “have to do not only with economics but also with culture, history, and especially individual behavior and personal choices.”

Looking at the impacts of getting a four-year college degree, he concludes that mobility is “alive and well in America”–though not what it could be, given what we see in other industrialized countries, or what it should be, given the “enormous” investments in anti-poverty programs.

What we need, he says, is more public policies, like student financial aid, that support personal effort. But that’s only part of the agenda. Haskins and his colleagues recommend:

  • Expanding the “serious” work requirements and the work supports in TANF to include beneficiaries of the food stamp program and subsidized housing–this because they view welfare reform as a great success.
  • Expanding programs that focus on the early growth and development of poor children.
  • Promoting marriage and two-parent families because “the growth of female-headed families is like a giant poverty-generating machine.”

Much of this makes me very uncomfortable. No doubt that our traditional cultural values–education, hard work, marriage and responsible child-rearing–are correlated to prosperity. No doubt that personal responsibility–or lack of same–helps determine what income bracket we’re in. And no doubt whatever that expanding supports for low-wage workers and helping poor children get a good start in life are important and worthwhile.

But my sense is that Haskins’s agenda is about half a step away from blaming poor people for their situation–and maybe not even half a step away from a very rigid and conservative view of what a family should be.

And is economic mobility–the chance to move up (and down) the income scale–really the be all and the end all anyway? My dream for America is different.