Thomas Edsall Describes Problem Brilliantly, Fails to See Solution
Last week Thomas Edsall wrote a column describing the painful reality of our culture: the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Using the findings of a recent report from the Russell Sage Foundation as a springboard, Edsall uses graphs to illustrate the underlying problems that create this phenomenon: racism, lack of education, and unmarried parents. Any child born into a lower quintile family where the mother is black, the mother lacks a high school degree, or the mother has never been married has a 50% of remaining in that quintile and at best a 14% chance of advancing to the top 40%. A child born unto a lower quintile family where the mother is white, has a college degree, or is continuously married has at least a 35% chance of advancing. This reality led to the title of Edsall’s piece, “Separated at Birth”.
This is a different story than we want to believe about our country. We want to believe that everyone in our country has an equal opportunity regardless of their mother’s race, martial status, or background. We want to believe that if one works hard, plays by the rules, and does well in school that they will succeed. And we also want to believe that no matter where they live they can enroll in a public school where their hard work will pay off. Edsall cites research done by Katharine Bradbury and Robert Triest, economists at the Federal Reserve in Boston who are the editors of the Sage report, which is called “Opportunity, Mobility, and Increased Inequality”:
Bradbury and Triest, the Boston Federal Reserve economists, follow up by drawing attention to the inexorable disadvantages accruing to already disadvantaged kids:
A 40 percentage-point gap in college enrollment of students born in the early 1960s between poorest-quartile and richest-quartile students expanded to a 51 point gap for the later cohort; similarly, the earlier cohort’s 31 point gap in college completion between rich and poor grew to a 45 point gap for the later cohort.
Bradbury and Triest put forward a bleak assessment of the options available to young people born into the poorest families, even children who possess considerable native gifts:
A key question is whether primary schools, once children come under their care, level the playing field and reduce these disparities. Most research findings suggest that they do not.
Not only do “children of affluent parents graduate from college at substantially higher rates than children of low-income parents,” according to Bradbury and Triest, “the gap persists even when controlling for ability in the form of test scores.”
They cite data showing that
a child’s earnings in adulthood reflect parental investments in his/her human capital (education) as well as his/her endowment of earnings capacity and market luck. That endowment, in turn, is determined by the reputation and “connections” of their families, the contribution to the ability, race, and other characteristics of children from the genetic constitutions of their families, and the learning, skills, goals, and other “family commodities” acquired through belonging to a particular family culture.
Four key factors or mechanisms of intergenerational earnings persistence “that are related to family incomes and that have a return” in the labor market play an outsize role in determining the fate of American children, according to studies cited by Bradbury and Triest: “noncognitive skills, cognitive ability, early labor market experiences, and educational attainment.”
Edsall does offer some hope, however. He notes that Isabel Sawhill and Richard Reeves, both of Brookings, identified
“…impressive gains from a five-stage program of intensive and sustained intervention with poor children and adolescents. These range from “biweekly home visits and group meetings to instruct and equip parents to be effective teachers for their children” during infancy to a “comprehensive high school reform initiative aimed at reducing student dropout rates.” Children whose parents are positioned, materially and psychologically, to take advantage of such interventions are fortunate, but the children themselves have no control over access to these resources.
And what about the children whose parents are NOT positioned materially and psychologically to take advantage of such interventions? Are they not the same children whose parents cannot take advantage of school choice programs? Are the children, through no fault of their own, unable to advance economically? In the world we now live in, the answer is “NO”.
In the meantime, those of us who were fortunate to be born into a white household with college educated parents who stayed married are unwilling to dig deeper into our pockets to provide the “intensive and sustained intervention” needed to assist those children who parents are NOT positioned materially and psychologically to take advantage of such interventions…