Equality of opportunity in an unequal world

Rich kids do better in school than poor kids, and the gap has been growing. So has the gap between what rich families spend on their children and what poor families spend on theirs, along with the overall income gap. On what planet can actual equality of opportunity for the next generation coexist with gross inequality of condition in the current generation?

This NYT story shows that, even as the racial gap in educational attainment has been shrinking, the income-class gap has been growing.

Note how huge the gap is: “one unit” of difference is three grade levels, and the current rich-poor gap is more than one unit. So a fifth-grader from a rich family reads better, on average, than an eighth-grader from a poor family.

Part of the reason seems to be that the investment gap has also been growing: while families at the 90th percentile of the income distribution used to spend five times as much per child as families at the 10th percentile, they now spend about nine times as much. Curiously, that’s also the family-income ratio: the 90th-percentile family income was $160,000 in 2008, vs. $17,500 for the 10th-percentile family.

So here’s the question, for those who insist that equality of opportunity is the American way while equality of result is “socialism”: in what sense are opportunities equal between high-income and low-income children? Unless parents are forbidden to spend money on their children, gross inequality of condition for the current generation implies gross inequality of opportunity for the next generation.



Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

29 thoughts on “Equality of opportunity in an unequal world”

  1. “Part of the reason seems to be that the investment gap has also been growing: while families at the 90th percentile of the income distribution used to spend five times as much per child as families at the 10th percentile, they now spend about nine times as much.”

    I’m sorry, Mark, but can you elaborate on this.
    (a) Who is the “they” that are doing this investing? Are you talking about money spent in schools or are you talking about money spent by parents?

    (b) Do we have good evidence [I say this with an open mind] that the relevant factor here is money spent rather than
    [1] culture and
    [2] (boo/hiss) genes?

    I don’t want to get into [2] — there are plenty of people both qualified (James Flynn) and unqualified (Charles Murray) who will be happy to do so.
    I’m more interested in [1].
    Specifically, IF culture is a substantial part of this (in so many ways, from talking to kids with rich vocabularies when they are young, to only have one or two kids and thereby having a lot more time for each of them, to having books around the house — which are opened and read — to role models and a particular vision of life), then what implications does that have for policy? If the essential problem here is that we’re dealing with kids who are damaged by the time they are six, then spending money in school (the implication of your post) is not obviously very useful. Other societies, which are more tolerant of state intervention and less invested in the idea that both intellectuals and the government are morons who should always be ignored, have the ability to work on trying to change their social culture in various ways, and to attempt early interventions. I don’t know how successful these attempts have been in other societies, but they seem even less likely to be successful in the US.

    1. Maynard, can you explain what you mean by “culture”? Isn’t it just the environment in which the kid is raised? How can you separate out the financial aspects from the “cultural” effects? As for Murray, my take on him is that Krugman’s column yesterday was spot on.

      1. I gave a bunch of examples of what I meant by culture: “talking to kids with rich vocabularies when they are young, to only have one or two kids and thereby having a lot more time for each of them, to having books around the house — which are opened and read — to role models and a particular vision of life”.

        If it makes you feel better to call this “the environment in which the kid is raised”, be my guest — I’m not interested in whatever social science war apparently surrounds the term “culture”.

        As for the financial issues, some, but very little, of this has to do with finance. We are all aware of poor societies, whether it’s Jews in mid 19th century Europe, or Taiwanese/Koreans/Japanese in mid 20th century Asia who have given their kids this sort of environment even in the absence of money, as well as other societies (most obviously oil-rich Arab societies in the late 20th century) who have plenty of money but don’t appear to have this sort of learning-friendly child culture.

        1. “..Unless parents are forbidden to spend money on their children, gross inequality of condition for the current generation implies gross inequality of opportunity for the next generation…”

          I am doing my level God-damned best to make my three into confident and well educated citizens. Far more of what’s important here (I think) is coercing them to read, guiding their reading towards things I think have value, and talking about it, than anything which costs money. Nagging on homework completion. Conditions imposed before they get to do video games. So, yes, I am working hard on things which I think give my kids a leg up on successful adulthood. To equalize this, you have to get into Harrison Bergeron territory.

          1. I am doing my level God-damned best to make my three into confident and well educated citizens. Far more of what’s important here (I think) is coercing them to read, guiding their reading towards things I think have value, and talking about it, than anything which costs money.

            We are doing this as well, and we just broached the subject with the kid this morning about sending her to a private school after sixth grade, so she can be around more high-achievers. This was after reading another story about Missy Franklin and her swimming exploits, in hopes that examples of strong, confident women wear off. All four parents have advanced degrees and are well-socialized, but school environment matters too, so we’ll pay. My sister is a teacher and she sent her two kids to private school their entire lives. Not uncommon.

    2. “They” pretty clearly refers to “families”. Mark means money spent by parents.

      As for your second question, that we’re seeing growth in the achievement gap is suggestive. That knocks out genes as an explanation: same genes now as in 1940, no? And you need to explain how culture has changed dramatically enough to cause the widening gap–that seems dubious to me. Whereas the spending gap at least correllates.

      Not to mention that if you assume parents are rational, they’re spending all that money on books, activities, and supplies for a reason, right? If the pianist-nanny from France and the exclusive pre-school don’t improve kids’ educational outcomes, why quite so much spending?

      1. ben wrote “same genes now as in 1940”. One response that I have encountered numerous times (but don’t endorse) is that the type of assortative mating that exists nowadays concentrates “good genes” among the successful, unlike earlier times when our society and economy were less meritocratic and people were much more likely to marry & procreate along, say, ethnic lines. That is, assortative mating has long been the norm, but the sorting variables were formerly much more frequently racial, ethnic and religious than nowadays, and much less frequently between genetically high value individuals. So although the genes have not changed, they are now distributed differently. I think the argument relies heavily on women in the labor market, and women being valued for many of the same traits that were in the past only valued in men.

        – How do we determine whether someone has good or high value genes? Economic success, which as we all know, now depends heavily on intellectual and personal traits that are genetically determined.

        – How do we know that they must be genetically determined? Because economic success, and certainly economic failure, is replicated within family lines over the generations. Obviously (as in, we all know), that is not the case for strictly environmental factors.

        You may notice a bit of circularity, as well as reliance on weak circumstantial evidence, in this argument.

      2. I’m not convinced by your dismissal of culture.
        Assortative mating (which as far as I know is becoming ever more prevalent in the US) would certainly explain some of this, perhaps a LOT.
        (And I refer here to the effects of assortative mating — university grads only marry university grads — on CULTURE. Once again, I am not much interested in genes over this time scale.)

        Likewise “And you need to explain how culture has changed dramatically enough” — are you kidding?

        Finally — the fact that the very wealthy do spend very large sums on their kids does not strike me as especially useful information — it’s proof by anecdote. Of COURSE they will spend that money, not least because it’s expected of them, and because it’s part of the one-up’s-manship that is the whole point of bothering to keep working once you’ve made more than a few million.
        The point of interest here is not how the upper 1% raise their kids compared to the lower 99%; it is how the highest 20% raise their kids compared to the lowest 20%. Bringing it all sorts of other hobbyhorses one may have is not useful in getting at a correct understanding of what is going on here.

        The one piece of information that WOULD be useful here in terms of dealing with hobbyhorses would be to know where the delta-difference over time is coming from? Is it substantially because the upper kids are doing ever better while the lower kids are basically flat; or is it that the upper kids are flat and the lower kids are doing substantially worse?

    3. (a) Money spent by parents is the same as money spent in schools since “parents” supply the money…kids not so much.
      (b) Yes.

      1. What is this evidence that makes you say “yes” to (b).
        Especially given the examples I presented of both poor societies that have valued education and wealthy societies that have not.

    4. Maynard, your post comes off as incoherent and kind of irrelevant. I think that’s because you missed the fundamental point of Mark’s post. It was not, as you seem to think, that we need to even up education spending. His main point was that there is no such thing as equality of opportunity in American society as it exists. The inequality of education spending was then merely an example of that main point.

  2. Maynard

    One feedback might be that families where both parents have to work (often at more than one job each) will have less time to spend with their kids. Not cheering the 50s, which was not a great deal for women or blacks, but a wage that allowed a single earner to support a family properly was normal then. Would paid parental leave (common in a lot of OECD countries), a higher minimum wage and more job security help? Almost certainly. Would these also lessen the wealth gap? Also certainly.

  3. Mark: The glibertarian blogosphere does not share your angst…if those children hadn’t exercised their freedom to choose low income parents, they wouldn’t be in this situation.

  4. Equality of opportunity seems to be more than a bit of an inequality in reality, as your framing of this issue reads. Yet we have examples of Americans who transcended such an inequality to become highly successful and productive to our way of life. It is equality of access and equality under the law that I fear will be next on that ever-slippery slop of growing inequalities. What happens when opportunists begin to shut down access to our economic and civil institutions of opportunity to those they deem undesirable? How will the ever-present effort to create equitable jurisprudence progress when opportunists begin to truncate and expedite due process for those they deem undesirable?

    Yes, equality of opportunity is of relevant concern, but other equality dangers to our free and liberty-minded society may be more ominous regarding unequal outcomes! How will George Bush and Dick Cheney’s administration, John Roberts, and Sam Alito be represented in future history texts? . . . Speaking of inequality of opportunity!

    1. What happens when opportunists begin to shut down access to our economic and civil institutions of opportunity to those they deem undesirable?

      Already here. It’s called education reform.

  5. Why is equal opportunity better than equal results? Because you can’t achieve the latter in a free society. Free people just won’t come out equal if they’re allowed choices in their lives.

    Your’s is a Procrustian ideal, amputations are inevitablely part of it.

    1. Equal opportunity isn’t “better” than equal results, because it’s an incoherent ideal. Equality of outcome – “to each according to his need” – is coherent, just not worth the costs, as you point out. Full equality of opportunity would require an equal starting point at all times, so the unequal gains from individual effort and luck would have to be taken away, or completely consumed, continuously. The donkey can never get the carrot.

      However, for incremental policy, the opposition between the two equalities is false. Strongly unequal opportunity and strongly unequal results are both bad, and they reinforce each other, as Mark says. The USA today is so far from either ideal state of equality that they are irrelevant. The question is whether there exist nearby better states of society, more equal on both the outcomes and opportunity dimensions, that are attainable with tolerable levels of government intervention. The historical experience of the USA itself, and comparison today with other societies of similar income and higher welfare indicators, strongly indicates that there are.

    2. Brett, you’re avoiding the argument. Do you believe in equality of OPPORTUNITY or not? If so, in what way does American society now provide that?

  6. A lifetime of observing about 300 family members who range from the upper tenth to the lowest tenth tells me that the enrichment does count. The most necessary enrichment is the verbal one; then comes a decently-structured family life (regular mealtimes and bedtime; encouragement and coaching for good behavior; parents model interest in ideas and planning for the future). Then comes support for enrichment activities that are available locally and not too expensive — participating on a team, joining a church choir, going to museums, etc. Last of all is the “icing on the cake” type of enrichment — that which seems beyond the reach of most of us: trips to Europe, twice a week music lessons, etc. I’m sure that those activities do add value — in a very few situations, and at older ages, maybe a lot of value. If you’re flunking Algebra, tutoring every day would help (although I’m not sure it will turn you into a math whiz). But lack of them is not a significant issue for K-8 children nearly as much as the more mundane enrichments are. Some of those types of enrichment seem as if anyone could provide at least some of them; for others, a certain degree of economic security has to be in place before they can be pursued.

  7. EB, that’s about exactly right. “Good” parenting involves both technique as well as nuanced variables such as parent knowledge and vocabulary, expressive language, modeling proper emotional regulation and positive social interaction. Most of these can clearly be done without museums, vacations, etc. Give a “good” parent access to reading material and their child will be fine.

    But one of the biggest problems we have, in terms of the perpetuation of poverty, has to do with neighborhood property values. People are segregated by SES, as we tend to live where we can afford to live. And because income correlates with human and social capital (education, grit, family cohesion, mental health, etc.), you get neighborhoods segregated not just by income but by ability. Thus, children in these neighborhoods will reflect the families from which they come.

    My radical proposition is that we rethink schools, and differentiate them according to the population they serve. Affluent schools need much less intervention, and thus do fine with minimal support services, shorter days, larger class sizes, average teachers, etc. But poor schools, because they serve a population with such lower levels of human/social capital, need lots of support services (aides, reading specialists, psychologists, home liasons, etc.), longer days, after school programs, smaller class sizes, experienced teachers, etc. The populations are just radically different. Currently, we provide *some* extra services based on family income, but the same basic model exists across multiple demographics. Further, there is a great deal of value-added capital that result from higher-SES populations, in the form of parent volunteers and fundraising. Wealthier schools can often raise 10x the extra funds from their family base than poorer schools.

    This differentiation could largely be accomplished by the standard model of using family income as a proxy for SES-correlated human/social capital. Currently, we expect teachers do make up for the SES difference by themselves, which is foolish, naive, and offensive to the men and women sacrificing so much only to be accused of “failure” by a public and punditocracy that still seems unable to get their heads around the issue.

    1. Your idea makes sense, Eli. We have done this, to some extent, by funding big-city school systems to a level that exceeds most (not all) suburban school systems, and pretty much all rural school systems. But the differential is not enough, and the money is spent generically rather than targeted to the children most at risk. Even in Chicago, where I live, there are plenty of children who may not have good family incomes, but they do have stable homes and they are learning to self-regulate. It would be easier for them, and better for the truly challenged children, if the high-intensity services were offered in special schools for children who arrive at K or pre-K with documentable deficits in language, self-regulation, and school readiness. Recent articles about “toxic stress” and what it does to children are relevant here. In a way, this kind of sorting is already starting to happen in the sense that charter schools enroll children whose parents pursue this opportunity, leaving the regular schools with much higher proportions of children at severe risk.

  8. Let me see if I’ve got this straight: If you throw money (resources) at a task (problem) the probability of a desired outcome increases? Who coulda’ known!!!!!!!

  9. For parents at the 90th percentile like (um) us, I suspect the difference is largely public investment through better schools; and non-monetary investment in achievement-orientated parenting. The top 0.1% can afford to be lousy parents and hire first-rate substitutes. Their children may be miserable, but they will learn the piano.

    The other thing that’s going on here is assortative child-rearing. You make sure your kids study and socialise with the kids of other well-off, well-educated parents like you. This is connected to financial inequality, especially the nexus between house prices and good schools. But it’s not straight extra cash for education.

  10. Meanwhile Tyler Cowen tells us inequality isn’t a big deal, and the worse situation relative to Europe is just a lifestyle choice.

    It would be interesting to artificially “reverse” the increased inequality in present day figures by comparing the current bottom tenth to the decile that spends five times as much per child today. Or if the data exists, go to past periods and compare the bottom tenth to the smaller percentage that spends ten time per child. I suspect both exercises would further confirm that inequality is what’s causing the achievement gaps.

  11. I’ll second Mark K.’s question, and agree in advance with the presumed conclusion. See also, Krugman’s Feb. 10 column.

    But mostly I’m posting this to clarify, for what (little) it’s worth, that the EB commenting above is not me. I comment as ‘eb’ or, as has lately become necessary, ‘eb53’. Not saying I particularly agree or disagree with EB, just that we’re not the same person.

    Now back to your irregularly scheduled discussion.

  12. 1. The gap in learning is caused by an increased gap in the distribution of wealth so that 90the percentile tiger moms can throw a lot of money at their children’s education. This is reinforced by changes in culture.
    2. The gap in learning is caused by changes in culture. This is reinforced by changes in the distribution of wealth.
    3. Increased immigration? I am sincerely proud to live in a country where a Central American peasant can show up to start a new life, but is anybody really surprised that the children of people who cannot understand English fluently are having a hard time in U.S. schools?
    4. It’s pretty strange that the article goes to Charles Murray for some theories about changing values and the class gap, considering that the other half of this story has to do with the massive fall in the racial gap during the civil rights era. You would think Mr. Bell Curve, or at least some of his angrier defenders, would be self-conscious about that.

    1. I realize that a lot of increased income inequality has a lot to do with the concentrated accumulation of wealth by the top 1% independent of any general trend towards people at the 90th percentile, but movements to income inequality are still relevant for comparing children from high-income families and from low-income families as a whole.

  13. I wonder about the use of standardized reading scores for the purpose of this study. Once more these tests are being used to demonstrate the failure of public education and how parental “investment” through private education is the key to achievement. I don’t quite get the connection between this study and the education reform movement, but I am suspicious of anything that validates more standardized testing and expenditure of public funds on tests pushed by testing companies and RTTP and NCLB federal education policy.

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