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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sources of Inequality in the US

Income inequality has been growing over time in the US, as evidenced by data assembled by Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson. They argue that at the time of the US Revolution, America probably had the lowest level of income inequality in the developed world. More than two hundred years later, however, things are not so even. The New York Times has a lengthy story today that follows three girls from a lower income family in Texas as they try to climb the educational ladder. 
“Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer — the place where upward mobility gets started,” said Greg J. Duncan, an economist [and demographer] at the University of California, Irvine. “But on virtually every measure we have, the gaps between high- and low-income kids are widening. It’s very disheartening.”
The growing role of class in academic success has taken experts by surprise since it follows decades of equal opportunity efforts and counters racial trends, where differences have narrowed. It adds to fears over recent evidence suggesting that low-income Americans have lower chances of upward mobility than counterparts in Canada and Western Europe.
Thirty years ago, there was a 31 percentage point difference between the share of prosperous and poor Americans who earned bachelor’s degrees, according to Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski of the University of Michigan. Now the gap is 45 points.
The cost of education is an important part of the story, and it seems clear to me that this is due especially to the drop in public support for education at all levels, but especially in higher education. The TEA party (Taxed Enough Already) movement symbolizes the public's lower level of interest in funding education for the nation's younger people. I teach at a public university, but the latest budget figures suggest that only 17 percent of San Diego State University's total annual operating expenses comes directly from the taxpayers of California. Student tuition and fees have been steadily rising as a percentage of the budget, and this obviously causes more pain for lower income families than for those with higher incomes. Since the days of Thomas Jefferson the idea of public education has been that it helps to level the playing field for families and improves long-term opportunities for everyone. We have lost sight of that perspective.


  1. I suspect that the breakdown of the nuclear family among the lower-classes is related to the education divide.

    1. Yes, anything that lowers family income makes it harder for kids to go to college.