It is a well-known fact that children from affluent families tend to do better in school. Yet the income divide has received far less attention from policy makers and government officials than gaps in student accomplishment by race.
Now, in analyses of long-term data published in recent months, researchers are finding that while the achievement gap between white and black students has narrowed significantly over the past few decades, the gap between rich and poor students has grown substantially during the same period.
“We have moved from a society in the 1950s and 1960s, in which race was more consequential than family income, to one today in which family income appears more determinative of educational success than race,” said Sean F. Reardon, a Stanford University sociologist. Professor Reardon is the author of a study that found that the gap in standardized test scores between affluent and low-income students had grown by about 40 percent since the 1960s, and is now double the testing gap between blacks and whites.
Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute whose book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” was published Jan. 31, described income inequality as “more of a symptom than a cause.”
The growing gap between the better educated and the less educated, he argued, has formed a kind of cultural divide that has its roots in natural social forces, like the tendency of educated people to marry other educated people, as well as in the social policies of the 1960s, like welfare and other government programs, which he contended provided incentives for staying single.
“When the economy recovers, you’ll still see all these problems persisting for reasons that have nothing to do with money and everything to do with culture,” he said.
I think Murray is right about a lot of this, though I think David Frum provides a fairly devastating critique of Murray’s thesis by pointing out the role income has likely played in bringing about this chasm. See Frum here, here, here, here, and here. An excerpt from Frum:
[O]nce you spell out [Murray's] implied case here, it collapses of its own obvious ludicrousness.
Let me try my hand:
You are a white man aged 30 without a college degree. Your grandfather returned from World War II, got a cheap mortgage courtesy of the GI bill, married his sweetheart and went to work in a factory job that paid him something like $50,000 in today’s money plus health benefits and pension. Your father started at that same factory in 1972. He was laid off in 1981, and has never had anything like as good a job ever since. He’s working now at a big-box store, making $40,000 a year, and waiting for his Medicare to kick in.
Now look at you. Yes, unemployment is high right now. But if you keep pounding the pavements, you’ll eventually find a job that pays $28,000 a year. That’s not poverty! Yet you seem to waste a lot of time playing video games, watching porn, and sleeping in. You aren’t married, and you don’t go to church. I blame Frances Fox Piven.
How you can tell a story about the moral decay of the working class with the “work” part left out is hard to fathom.
I’ll be writing more about the Frum critique later. I’m trying to wait until I finish the Murray book. Frum’s basic argument is that Murray completely ignores the forces that have driven income inequality, and the fact that over the past 40 years or so, the rich really have gotten a lot richer, and the working class has gotten poorer. And he mocks Murray’s prescription for what he (Murray) identifies as a social problem threatening the very essence of America: for the rich to scold the poor more, and move closer to them to get to know them and set a good example. But like I said, more on that later. Back to the Times article:
There are no easy answers, in part because the problem is so complex, said Douglas J. Besharov, a fellow at the Atlantic Council. Blaming the problem on the richest of the rich ignores an equally important driver, he said: two-earner household wealth, which has lifted the upper middle class ever further from less educated Americans, who tend to be single parents.
The problem is a puzzle, he said. “No one has the slightest idea what will work. The cupboard is bare.”
Here is where the breakdown of traditional sexual mores, ideals about marriage and parenting, and communal sensibilities play such a big role. Anecdotally, I think about the stories told to me by teacher friends — my late sister, as well as friends in Dallas — about the chaos and instability in the lives of the children in their schools, and the enormous burden this placed on the children when it came to learning. I think also anecdotally about my father’s childhood, spent during the Great Depression, in serious rural poverty. His father was gone for much of that time, on the road making money to support his family. My dad and his brother were effectively raised by a single mother, my grandmother, who also had the responsibility for caring for her mother in law. They suffered, but the one great thing they had in that house was a sense of order. It came from my grandmother’s Methodism, and, I think, from the understanding that their father was a mostly unseen but very real force in their lives. Though he was gone for much of their childhood, he had in no way abandoned his family, and that knowledge had real binding force in their conduct. (I read a study once that showed children whose parent had died, versus those left with a single parent because of divorce or abandonment, were much better adjusted emotionally; the thesis was that they didn’t have to deal with deep feelings of rejection by their absent parent).
I suppose the point I am making is an entirely obvious and unoriginal one: that there are material, moral, and cultural reasons for this growing chasm. I suspect Besharov is right that nobody knows what to do about it. It often seems to me that the economic (e.g., globalism) and cultural forces (e.g., individualism and hedonism) causing this to happen are irresistible. It’s as if a tsunami were passing over our society, and the only realistic thing you can hope to do is to grab as many people as you can and hope to ride the crest of the wave.