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Education Isn’t Helping Americans Overcome Deepening Inequality

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In Remaking Eden (Harper Perennial, 1998), geneticist Lee Silver envisioned a future in which humanity has split into two species: “Naturals,” the poor slobs who muddle along with the genes that nature gave them, and the “GenRich,” who can afford to boost their physical and mental talents via genetic engineering. Silver warns that over time, “the genetic distance between the Naturals and the GenRich has become greater and greater, and now there is little movement up from the Natural to GenRich class.”

We don’t have to wait until science catches up to science fiction for this unjust dystopia to be realized. It’s happening now, in the United States, as a result of policies that favor the rich at the expense of un-rich. Scholars are confirming with empirical studies what Occupy Wall Street protesters have been saying: our system is unfairly rigged in favor of the haves, who keep pulling away from have-nots.

Education can help the poor climb their way to a higher socioeconomic status. But according to Sabrina Tavernise of The New York Times, several studies have shown that “the achievement gap between rich and poor children is widening, a development that threatens to dilute education’s leveling effects.”

Race plays less of a role than it once did in this widening chasm. A study published last year by sociologist Sean Reardon found that the difference between standardized test scores of blacks and whites has narrowed since 1960, while the difference between low-income and wealthy students has surged 40 percent. “We have moved from a society in the 1950s and 1960s,” Reardon told The Times, “in which race was more consequential than family income, to one today in which family income appears to be more determinative of educational success than race.”

The simplest explanation for the divide is that the rich can afford to send their children to better schools, hire private tutors for them and give them other advantages. In 1972, affluent parents spent five times as much on their children, on average, as low-income parents; by 2007, that difference had almost doubled, to nine to one. “The pattern of privileged families today is intensive cultivation,” sociologist Frank Furstenberg told The Times.

The federal tax code is also stacked against the poor. The code caps taxes on long-term capital gains and dividends at 15 percent, which is why Mitt Romney is taxed at a lower rate than a grade-school teacher. Far from being progressive, with percentages rising with income, the tax code is regressive in this key area. Those who work for a living pay more in taxes, percentage-wise, than those who live off investments.

Political scientist Andrew Hacker documents the depths of our inequality in “We’re More Unequal Than You Think,” in The New York Review of Books this month. He estimates that since 1985 “the lower 60 percent of households have lost $4 trillion, most of which has ascended to the top 5 percent.” U.S. economic policies, Hacker says, now serve as a “giant vacuum cleaner” sucking money from low-income people and showering it upon the rich.

Economists quantify the inequality of a society on a scale called the Gini index. If everyone has the same income, the Gini index is zero; if one person makes all the moola, the Gini index is one. The U.S. Gini index has risen from .359 in 1972 to .440 in 2010, an increase of more than 20 percent, Hacker reports. In contrast, the Gini index of socialist Sweden is .230.

Hacker notes that “in a not-so-distant past, families of modest means made enough to put something aside for their children’s college fees. That cushion is gone, which is why millions of undergraduates are now forced to take much larger loans. Adding interest and penalties, many will face decades paying off six-figure debts.” (I’m facing this financial challenge myself; my son is entering college next fall and my daughter a year later.)

The U.S. exemplifies the Matthew effect, a sociological term that alludes to a passage in the Gospel of Matthew: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

Our current presidential race features several Christian candidates—Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Romney—who seem to view the Matthew effect as the Eleventh Commandment. These men trumpet their religiosity and rectitude, and yet they advocate economic policies that benefit the rich and hurt the poor, violating the most basic rules of moral decency. Naturals must join together with rich people with a conscience to create a more economically just society.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, www.flickr.com/tracy_olson.

About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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