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.


Lifetime Poverty Risk Much Higher for Blacks Than Whites

August 28, 2013

About a month ago, the Associated Press reported survey data indicating that nearly four out of five American adults would experience economic insecurity by the time they turned 60.

Many columnists and talking heads picked up on the story. Unlike most, James Taranto at The Wall Street Journal raised various objections to the economic insecurity measures the AP source used. One (unemployment) I agree with. The others not.

Taranto argues, among other things, that one of the measures — near-poverty — is “arbitrary” because it’s set at 150% of the applicable federal poverty threshold. Half again as high isn’t “near,” he says.

Well, blogger Matt Bruenig responds, what if we just measured the likelihood of at least a year in poverty, as measured by the official thresholds?

He dips into a paper published in 2001 and discovers that more than half (51%) of adults will have experienced a year’s worth of poverty or more during a “lifespan” encompassing ages 25 through 75.

Large differences, as you might expect, when levels of formal education are factored in. But what’s truly striking are the cross-cutting differences.

With or without a high school education or more, rates for women are higher than for men. More striking are the very large differences between blacks and whites of both genders.

By the age of 75, nearly 70% of black men with a high school education or more have spent at least a year in poverty, as compared to 30.7% of white men in the same (perhaps over-broad) category.

For similarly-qualified black women, the rate rises to 77.5% — about 40% higher than the rate for their white counterparts.

For black women with less than a high school education, the chances of not experiencing poverty in adulthood are a mere 1.7%. And about 70% have already lived in poverty by the time they reach 35.

The 75-year-old rate for black men without a high school education is 95.6% — more than 21% higher than for their white counterparts.

We’ve had two recessions since these figures were calculated. So it’s reasonable to assume that the poverty risk rates would be higher if more recent figures were crunched.

Whether the black-white disparities would be smaller is an open question. But they surely wouldn’t have disappeared.

From the early 1960s forward, the black unemployment rate has always been at least twice the rate for whites, writes Algernon Austin at the Economic Policy Institute in an overview of the “unfinished business” from the 1963 March on Washington.

Though the black poverty rate is significantly lower than it was 50 years ago, it’s drifted back up since 2000 and, at last count, stood at 27.6% — nearly three times the rate for whites.

The earnings gaps for those employed are very large too, especially at higher education levels.

For example, full-time white male workers with at least a four-year college degree earn about 18% — roughly $16,950 a year — more than their black counterparts. The race gap for women is smaller, but still close to $5,000 a year.

Professor Mark Rank, who gave the AP its headline figures, apparently chose his economic insecurity indicators to bring more whites into the pool than the Census Bureau’s poverty figures do — and with good intentions.

“Only when poverty is thought of as a mainstream event, rather than a fringe experience that just affects blacks and Hispanics, can we really begin to build broader support for programs that lift people in need,” he says.

Which is tantamount to saying that we, as a society, don’t care all that much about poverty and its root causes so long as we think they’re minority issues.

If true — and I think it is — we’ve not transformed “the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood,” as Dr. Martin Luther King hoped we would when he spoke to the marchers half a century ago.

No one, I think, would say we’ve made no progress. Whether we’re marching forward in all areas is a whole other matter.

Who would have thought 10 years ago that federal voting rights protections would have been such an urgent item on last Saturday’s march agenda?


DC Poverty Rate Hits 19.2 Percent

September 22, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, the Census Bureau released the results of its 2010 Current Population Survey.

Much attention here in the District of Columbia to the increase in our local poverty rate. Up to 19.9%, we were told. Trailing only Mississippi and Louisiana.

That poverty rate was based on a small sample, which means it could be off by quite a bit. The two-year average Census recommends yields a rate of 18.9%. The even more reliable three-year average is 18.1%.

But these rates, of course, don’t tell us whether poverty has been trending up or down. Nor anything about specific impacts.

So I waited for the results of the American Community Survey — partly because its one-year figures are reasonably reliable, but also because there are lots more state-level figures.

Now we’ve got them. Here’s some of what we learn, combined with my analyses based on figures from prior years.

Poverty Rate

In 2010, the District’s poverty rate did indeed go up, though not by quite as much as the one-year CPS figure indicates.

According to the ACS, the rate was 19.2% — 0.8% higher than in 2009 and 3.9% higher than for the nation as a whole.

The new rate means that about 109,620 District residents lived below the Census Bureau’s very low poverty thresholds. These vary by household size and composition. But, to give you a sense of how low they are, the average threshold of a family of four was $22,314.

Child Poverty Rate*

The already very high child poverty rate increased to 30.4%. This is 8.8% higher than the national rate and 7.7% higher than in 2007, just before the recession set in.

Translated into more human terms, the new rate means that about 30,500 D.C. children lived in poverty last year.

One tiny bright spot. The percent of children in deep poverty, i.e., in households with incomes below 50% of the poverty threshold, dropped by 2.6%.

It is still, however, a very high 16.2% — 6.6% higher than the national rate.

Race/Ethnicity Gaps

We see once again that poverty is not an equal opportunity condition here in the District or in the nation as a whole.

In 2010, 8.5% of non-Hispanic white District residents lived in poverty. The poverty rate for black residents was more than three times greater — 27.1%. The rate for Hispanic residents was nearly double the non-white Hispanic rate — 14.7%.

Deep poverty rates also varied — from 5.9% for non-Hispanic whites to 14% for blacks, with Hispanics in the middle at 8%. All three of these rates are greater than the 2009 rates. The increase for Hispanics — 4% — was markedly greater than for the other two groups.

Not surprisingly, we see similar gaps in median average household income. For non-Hispanic white households, the median was $99,220 — an eye-popping $45,052 more than the national median for these households.

The District’s black household median income was more than two and a half times lower than the median for all District households — $37,430, as compared to $60,903.

Hispanic households fared better, though not nearly so well as non-Hispanic white households. Their 2010 median income was $60,798.

In short, these are mostly grim figures — and a far cry from the “one city” Mayor Gray envisions.

To my mind, the child poverty rate rings the loudest alarm bells because we’ve got volumes of research showing that children who live in poverty have much higher risks of poor health, developmental delays, academic difficulties and other problems;

These, the research shows, pave the way for lifelong poverty — and thus another generation of children who are born with two strikes against them.

* All the child poverty figures are for individuals up to the age of 18.

UPDATE: Shortly after I posted this, the Coalition on Human Needs published a state-by-state list of poverty rates reflecting the new ACS report and its reports for the four years preceding.

According to the list, the District’s 2010 poverty rate is higher than any state’s. Alabama and Kentucky tie for second place, with rates of 19% all but two states’, Mississippi’s and New Mexico’s.

A separate CHN list provides state-by-state child poverty rates. The District’s rate is the second highest, topped by Mississippi’s 32.5%.