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David Brooks’ Take on Inequality

January 17, 2014

As is often the case, I found myself agreeing with NYTimes columnist David Brooks’ analysis of an issue but being completely flummoxed by his conclusions. In today’s Times Brooks takes on the issue of inequality and makes several insightful points about the fact that there are no quick fixes and that some of the ideas, like increasing the minimum wage, will not get at the root cause… but then he writes:

The primary problem for the poor is not that they are getting paid too little for the hours they work. It is that they are not working full time or at all. Raising the minimum wage is popular politics; it is not effective policy.

The obvious solution is to require that retailers and restaurants employ people in full time work instead of instituting practices that make certain employees always fall short of full-time work to avoid providing them with insurance…. or allowing people to retain benefits like Medicaid if they work more hours or earn marginally more money… or creating full-time work by embarking on major infrastructure upgrades that our country needs to remain competitive. But these are government driven solutions and not solutions driven by the market.

From my perspective, the solutions to the problem of inequality all require government intervention of some kind, because the market is indifferent to how funds are distributed and whether everyone has a fair shot at getting to the top of the distribution curve. Brooks’ final paragraph triggered a comment. The paragraph (with my emphases) read:

If we’re going to mobilize a policy revolution, we should focus on the real concrete issues: bad schools, no jobs for young men, broken families, neighborhoods without mediating institutions. We should not be focusing on a secondary issue and a statistical byproduct.

My rejoinder to this paragraph read:

I think Republicans and Democrats would agree with your list of “…real concrete issues: bad schools, no jobs for young men, broken families, neighborhoods without mediating institutions”… and both parties have reached a consensus on the “fix” for bad schools. Unfortunately the fix is wrongheaded and counter-productive. The replacement of neighborhood schools with charter schools undercuts what COULD be a mediating public institution in the neighborhood that provides support for single parent households with a for-profit low wage franchise. Neither party wants to face the reality that “bad schools” as measured by standardized tests are schools that serve children raised in poverty and to address the root causes of poverty the government will need to intervene earlier in the lives of children… and because that earlier intervention is fraught with political peril neither party is willing to tackle it. The Democrats could ask the government to spend money to upgrade schools and hire more teachers, to spend money to create jobs for young men, and to spend money to establish secular “mediating institutions” in neighborhoods… and those debates will be about spending. They aren’t doing so… but the COULD! But both parties hit a wall when it comes to early intervention which requires “the government” to take children out of their mother’s care or to establish programs that tell mothers how to raise their children more effectively.

As related in earlier posts, my experience in giving a presentation that advocated for Head Start in graduate school in the early 1970s indicated to me that getting a public consensus on early intervention is difficult. Some of my classmates were appalled that the program I proposed had components of behavioral modification and an effort to “inculcate middle class values” thereby dishonoring the cultural backgrounds of the children. The same kinds of arguments are offered by families who believe that schools are “too secular” or promote “humanistic values”.

Instead of spending time writing a common core to standardize for-profit schools, some of the billionaires should spend time and energy trying to develop a common core of child rearing practices that could be taught to parents in robust neighborhood schools or publicly funded child care centers. Andrew Carnegie gave us the public library… maybe Bill Gates could give us the public child care center.

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