Fixing The Opportunity Gap In America

David Brooks, being David Brooks, can’t say anything interesting or conservative even when he stumbles across a subject that’s tailor made for it.

Over the past few months, writers from Charles Murray to Timothy Noah have produced alarming work on the growing bifurcation of American society. Now the eminent Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam and his team are coming out with research that’s more horrifying.

While most studies look at inequality of outcomes among adults and help us understand how America is coming apart, Putnam’s group looked at inequality of opportunities among children. They help us understand what the country will look like in the decades ahead. The quick answer? More divided than ever.

Putnam’s data verifies what many of us have seen anecdotally, that the children of the more affluent and less affluent are raised in starkly different ways and have different opportunities. Decades ago, college-graduate parents and high-school-graduate parents invested similarly in their children. Recently, more affluent parents have invested much more in their children’s futures while less affluent parents have not.

…Affluent parents also invest more money in their children. Over the last 40 years upper-income parents have increased the amount they spend on their kids’ enrichment activities, like tutoring and extra curriculars, by $5,300 a year. The financially stressed lower classes have only been able to increase their investment by $480, adjusted for inflation.

As a result, behavior gaps are opening up. In 1972, kids from the bottom quartile of earners participated in roughly the same number of activities as kids from the top quartile. Today, it’s a chasm.

Richer kids are roughly twice as likely to play after-school sports. They are more than twice as likely to be the captains of their sports teams. They are much more likely to do nonsporting activities, like theater, yearbook and scouting. They are much more likely to attend religious services.

It’s not only that richer kids have become more active. Poorer kids have become more pessimistic and detached. Social trust has fallen among all income groups, but, between 1975 and 1995, it plummeted among the poorest third of young Americans and has remained low ever since. As Putnam writes in notes prepared for the Aspen Ideas Festival: “It’s perfectly understandable that kids from working-class backgrounds have become cynical and even paranoid, for virtually all our major social institutions have failed them – family, friends, church, school and community.” As a result, poorer kids are less likely to participate in voluntary service work that might give them a sense of purpose and responsibility. Their test scores are lagging. Their opportunities are more limited.

A long series of cultural, economic and social trends have merged to create this sad state of affairs. Traditional social norms were abandoned, meaning more children are born out of wedlock. Their single parents simply have less time and resources to prepare them for a more competitive world. Working-class jobs were decimated, meaning that many parents are too stressed to have the energy, time or money to devote to their children.

…Equal opportunity, once core to the nation’s identity, is now a tertiary concern. If America really wants to change that, if the country wants to take advantage of all its human capital rather than just the most privileged two-thirds of it, then people are going to have to make some pretty uncomfortable decisions.

Liberals are going to have to be willing to champion norms that say marriage should come before childrearing and be morally tough about it. Conservatives are going to have to be willing to accept tax increases or benefit cuts so that more can be spent on the earned-income tax credit and other programs that benefit the working class.

First of all, this isn’t in an “equal opportunity” problem. We can never be “equal” in that way. The kid who grows up with intelligent, well meaning Christian parents is always going to have an advantage over the kid who grows up with a Satanist father who teaches him to beat animals for fun. The child who has rich, well connected parents is going to have an advantage over the one with dirt poor folks. If your parents are junkies, you’re probably not going to have as good of an upbringing as a kid whose parents are both teetotallers.

You’re not going to “fix” all of that with any government program. You’re also not going to do much of significance with Brooks’ grab one item from each side of the fence approach either.

Liberals are going to have to be willing to champion norms that say marriage should come before childrearing and be morally tough about it. Conservatives are going to have to be willing to accept tax increases or benefit cuts so that more can be spent on the earned-income tax credit and other programs that benefit the working class.

To begin with, not only do we already pour massive amounts of resources into helping the poor, we’ve been doing it since the sixties. What we don’t need to do is to throw more good money after bad. Instead, how about changing our approach?

How about fighting gay marriage and getting rid of no-fault divorce to strengthen marriage instead of continuing to tear the institution down? Maybe we should put more emphasis on policing low income, high crime areas so that poor Americans can feel as safe in their neighborhoods as the middle class? What about plain old making the school day a couple of hours longer and having the kids have less vacation time in the summer? That extra time in school would particularly benefit poor kids who don’t have as many learning opportunities at home and coupled with merit pay for teachers, would improve their education. Maybe we could also stop trying to drive Christianity from schools and the public square under the false claim that the Constitution contains a “separation of church and state” so that lower class kids could be exposed to more moral instruction that they’re not getting at home.

Would that “fix” all of our problems? No, but it would at least start to reverse the cultural trends that have done so much damage to less affluent Americans over the last 40 years. Every one of these ideas would have a large, positive long term effect, but of course, each would also offend liberals. Gay liberals would continue to insist you can raise kids any old way and it won’t have any impact; so they’ll still want gay marriage. Black liberals would complain about sending more police into black neighborhoods — as if the real problem is the police as opposed to the criminals preying on all the decent people trying to make a living. Teachers’ unions would oppose anything that means more work for their members. Liberals hate Christianity and love hedonism; so they don’t want to hear anyone talking about morals.

This problem hasn’t entirely been created by liberalism. Because of automation and a much more interconnected world, many of the low skill, medium pay factory jobs have gone overseas and won’t be coming back. But when you get beyond that issue, people are just starting to see how much damage liberalism has done to America over the last few decades.

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