There are plenty of reasons to be upset about the vast and growing gulf between rich and poor in America. One of the best, as economist Richard Murnane pointed out last week at Indiana University, is what’s it’s doing to children.
Speaking at the inaugural Economics of Education Seminar at IU Bloomington, he said income inequality is undermining the education of low-income students – and threatening the national ideal of equal opportunity. “Educational attainment has been the path to socio-economic mobility throughout our nation’s history,” he said.
Murnane, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, drew much of his talk from Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools and Children’s Life Chances, which he co-edited with Greg Duncan of the University of California-Irvine. The result of a five-year project by a team of researchers and experts, the new book should inform the national debate over education policy.
He showed that, for three decades after World War II, the growing U.S. economy was a “rising tide that lifted all boats.” But starting around 1980, some boats got lifted while others were swamped. The rich began getting a whole lot richer; those at the bottom stood still. The trend accelerated after 2000.
Over the same period, neighborhoods and schools have become more economically segregated. A child from a low-income family is increasingly unlikely to be in class with children who are not poor.
Why does this matter? Murnane cited data showing that schools serving the many poor children have more students with achievement and behavioral problems, making learning difficult for all. Student turnover is high in such schools, causing disruptions not only for students who are constantly changing schools but for their peers. Also, it’s hard for high-poverty schools to attract and keep the best teachers – they burn out or transfer to a less demanding school.
What happens outside of school also matters. Since the 1970s, the gap between what rich and poor parents spent on “enrichment” activities for their children – music lessons, summer camps, etc. – nearly tripled (adjusted for inflation). A broader experience of the world, including exposure to novel places through travel and trips to museums, helps children make sense of their classroom lessons.
The disparities are reflected in student achievement. Between 1978 and 2008, Murnane says, the gap in average math and English test scores between children from high-income and low-income families increased by one-third. Over two decades, the college completion rate increased by 21 percentage points for students from affluent families but by only 4 points for students from low-income families.
Murnane and Duncan highlight their findings in a recent column in the Chicago Tribune. Their policy suggestions: Invest in high-quality preschool programs and support programs that boost income for low-wage workers, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit.
“Debating the merits of teachers unions, charter schools and test- based accountability,” they write, “all fail to address the core problem, which is that growth in family income inequality has eroded educational opportunities.”