The wealth gap and educational attainment: the bad news is that the good news is probably wrong

Ted Barlow has a highly encouraging (for those of use who are easily encouraged) post about the relationship between the wealth of black families and the educational attainment of their kids. He cites work by Dalton Conley showing that the famous gap between blacks and whites, which persists even controlling for income (black kids from families in the highest income quintile — not the highest income quintile among blacks, but the highest income quintile overall — have reading scores equal to those of white kids in the next-to-lowest quintile) disappears once you control for family wealth, rather than family income.

The wealth gap by race is much more marked than the income gap. Closing it would require vigorous intervention. But if the wealth deficiency is what accounts for the difference in test scores, at least that locates the problem in a place where public policy might have some actual reach. To that extent, then, it’s good news.

Alas, it isn’t really so. First, the size of the wealth gap, even controlling for income, suggests black families as wealthy as white families with similar incomes are extreme outliers. That means you have to worry that wealth is proxying for other unmeasured characteristics, rather than acting directly to improve performance. If so, doing things to make black people wealthier shouldn’t be expected to bring their kids’ performance into line with those black families who are wealthy now.

What’s worse, the outcome measure Conley used seems to have been “educational attainment” (i.e., how far someone gets in school) rather than any measure of performance, such as reading or math scores. According to my colleague Meredith Phillips, who literally wrote the book on the black-white test score gap (along with Christopher Jencks), the attainment gap, controlling for income and other demographic variables, is already fairly small, and it’s not surprising that adding wealth to the equation closes it all the way.

But the link between wealth and test scores is much weaker than the link between wealth and highest grade completed, as Phillips writes:

After controlling for income, wealth can explain some additional percentage of the gap in math scores (an additional 15% of the gap if I recall correctly) but barely any of the gap in reading/vocabulary scores (at least among young children). Estimates I’ve run based on 5-6 year olds’ vocab scores show that wealth explains no additional chunk of the gap above and beyond causally prior variables. I doubt that wealth is the full causal culprit here.

That’s not to say that the wealth gap isn’t worth working on in its own right: it is. But it doesn’t appear that wealth redistribution, even if we could accomplish it, would solve the problem of blacks graduating from high school with skills resembling those of the average white middle-school student.


Ampersand posts the actual wealth tables, including a set disaggregated by income class. Ugh! And Ted Barlow graciously follows up on the above.

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: