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How to stop worrying about class


Doug Henwood provides an important reminder of how articles in the newspaper of the wealthy, by the wealthy, and for the wealthy works. Thank you, Paul Krugman, for providing some truth, reminding us that "we should reject the attempt to divert the national conversation away from soaring inequality toward the alleged moral failings of those Americans being left behind."

by Doug Henwood

Today's New York Times contains a fine example of how ideology works at the high end: report information that might trouble the established order, but conclude on a tranquilizing note that allows the comfortable reader to turn the page (or click "close tab") without changing his or her worldview. Both functions are important. Outlets like the Times do report tons of important stuff that one would be hard-pressed to learn otherwise. But, as Alexander Cockburn put it long ago, a primary function of the bourgeois press is reassurance.

The piece by Sabrina Tavernise, "Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Show," shows that "while the achievement gap between white and black students has narrowed significantly over the past few decades, the gap between rich and poor students has grown substantially during the same period." (The paper from which much of the data is drawn, by Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon, can be gotten here.) While it's long been well known that parental income and education have a stronger influence on educational outcomes than schools themselves, the gap between kids from affluent and poor families is widening.

All that information, and then some, is nicely presented in the first half of the article. But the second half consists mostly of quotes from three right-wing sources: University of Chicago labor economist James Heckman; Bell Curve ghoul Charles Murray (newly famous for his cultural take on the crisis of the white working class); and Douglas Besharov, now of the Atlantic Institute but formerly of the American Enterprise Institute, where he ran the Social and Individual Responsibility Project. Heckman says the last thing we should do is give poor people more money. Murray says it has "nothing to do with money and everything to do with culture." And Besharov chimes in with the inevitable "no easy answers," because "no one has the slightest idea what will work."

Nonsense. The answers are conceptually easy, though politically anything but. You take money from rich people and give it to poor people, and spend at least as much, maybe more, educating the children of the poor as you do on the children of the rich. But that might make the Times' audience uncomfortable. Better to flatter them on their excellent parenting.

Disclosure alert: I know Sabrina Tavernise and like her a lot. I just wish she'd written this piece differently.

Doug Henwood edits LBO [Left Business Observer], a newsletter he founded in 1986, He also hosts Behind the News, a weekly radio show covering economics and politics on KPFA, Berkeley, that is rebroadcast on several other stations across the U.S., and has a worldwide audience via its Internet archive. His book "Wall Street" is now available for free download here.


LBO covers economics and politics in the broadest sense. Recent and persisting obsessions include

  • the lameness of the Dems

  • income distribution and poverty in the U.S.
    and elsewhere in the First World

  • the privatization of public education

  • the globalization of finance and production

  • the worldwide attack on pensions

  • the economics of energy

  • the decay of the American ruling class



  • Here is the New York Times item.

    Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Say

    By Sabrina Tavernise


    WASHINGTON--Education was historically considered a great equalizer in American society, capable of lifting less advantaged children and improving their chances for success as adults. But a body of recently published scholarship suggests that the achievement gap between rich and poor children is widening, a development that threatens to dilute education's leveling effects.

    It is a well-known fact that children from affluent families tend to do better in school. Yet the income divide has received far less attention from policy makers and government officials than gaps in student accomplishment by race.

    Now, in analyses of long-term data published in recent months, researchers are finding that while the achievement gap between white and black students has narrowed significantly over the past few decades, the gap between rich and poor students has grown substantially during the same period.

    "We have moved from a society in the 1950s and 1960s, in which race was more consequential than family income, to one today in which family income appears more determinative of educational success than race," said Sean F. Reardon, a Stanford University sociologist. Professor Reardon is the author of a study that found that the gap in standardized test scores between affluent and low-income students had grown by about 40 percent since the 1960s, and is now double the testing gap between blacks and whites.

    In another study, by researchers from the University of Michigan, the imbalance between rich and poor children in college completion -- the single most important predictor of success in the work force --has grown by about 50 percent since the late 1980s.

    The changes are tectonic, a result of social and economic processes unfolding over many decades. The data from most of these studies end in 2007 and 2008, before the recession's full impact was felt. Researchers said that based on experiences during past recessions, the recent downturn was likely to have aggravated the trend.

    "With income declines more severe in the lower brackets, there's a good chance the recession may have widened the gap," Professor Reardon said. In the study he led, researchers analyzed 12 sets of standardized test scores starting in 1960 and ending in 2007. He compared children from families in the 90th percentile of income -- the equivalent of around $160,000 in 2008, when the study was conducted -- and children from the 10th percentile, $17,500 in 2008. By the end of that period, the achievement gap by income had grown by 40 percent, he said, while the gap between white and black students, regardless of income, had shrunk substantially.

    Both studies were first published last fall in a book of research, "Whither Opportunity?" compiled by the Russell Sage Foundation, a research center for social sciences, and the Spencer Foundation, which focuses on education. Their conclusions, while familiar to a small core of social sciences scholars, are now catching the attention of a broader audience, in part because income inequality has been a central theme this election season.

    The connection between income inequality among parents and the social mobility of their children has been a focus of President Obama as well as some of the Republican presidential candidates.

    One reason for the growing gap in achievement, researchers say, could be that wealthy parents invest more time and money than ever before in their children (in weekend sports, ballet, music lessons, math tutors, and in overall involvement in their children's schools), while lower-income families, which are now more likely than ever to be headed by a single parent, are increasingly stretched for time and resources. This has been particularly true as more parents try to position their children for college, which has become ever more essential for success in today's economy.

    A study by Sabino Kornrich, a researcher at the Center for Advanced Studies at the Juan March Institute in Madrid, and Frank F. Furstenberg, scheduled to appear in the journal Demography this year, found that in 1972, Americans at the upper end of the income spectrum were spending five times as much per child as low-income families. By 2007 that gap had grown to nine to one; spending by upper-income families more than doubled, while spending by low-income families grew by 20 percent.

    "The pattern of privileged families today is intensive cultivation," said Dr. Furstenberg, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.

    The gap is also growing in college. The University of Michigan study, by Susan M. Dynarski and Martha J. Bailey, looked at two generations of students, those born from 1961 to 1964 and those born from 1979 to 1982. By 1989, about one-third of the high-income students in the first generation had finished college; by 2007, more than half of the second generation had done so. By contrast, only 9 percent of the low-income students in the second generation had completed college by 2007, up only slightly from a 5 percent college completion rate by the first generation in 1989.

    James J. Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, argues that parenting matters as much as, if not more than, income in forming a child's cognitive ability and personality, particularly in the years before children start school.

    "Early life conditions and how children are stimulated play a very important role," he said. "The danger is we will revert back to the mindset of the war on poverty, when poverty was just a matter of income, and giving families more would improve the prospects of their children. If people conclude that, it's a mistake."

    Meredith Phillips, an associate professor of public policy and sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, used survey data to show that affluent children spend 1,300 more hours than low-income children before age 6 in places other than their homes, their day care centers, or schools (anywhere from museums to shopping malls). By the time high-income children start school, they have spent about 400 hours more than poor children in literacy activities, she found.

    Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute whose book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, was published Jan. 31, described income inequality as "more of a symptom than a cause."

    The growing gap between the better educated and the less educated, he argued, has formed a kind of cultural divide that has its roots in natural social forces, like the tendency of educated people to marry other educated people, as well as in the social policies of the 1960s, like welfare and other government programs, which he contended provided incentives for staying single.

    "When the economy recovers, you'll still see all these problems persisting for reasons that have nothing to do with money and everything to do with culture," he said.

    There are no easy answers, in part because the problem is so complex, said Douglas J. Besharov, a fellow at the Atlantic Council. Blaming the problem on the richest of the rich ignores an equally important driver, he said: two-earner household wealth, which has lifted the upper middle class ever further from less educated Americans, who tend to be single parents.

    The problem is a puzzle, he said. "No one has the slightest idea what will work. The cupboard is bare."
    Money and Morals

    By Paul Krugman


    Lately inequality has re-entered the national conversation. Occupy Wall Street gave the issue visibility, while the Congressional Budget Office supplied hard data on the widening income gap. And the myth of a classless society has been exposed: Among rich countries, America stands out as the place where economic and social status is most likely to be inherited.

    So you knew what was going to happen next. Suddenly, conservatives are telling us that it's not really about money; it's about morals. Never mind wage stagnation and all that, the real problem is the collapse of working-class family values, which is somehow the fault of liberals.

    But is it really all about morals? No, it's mainly about money.

    To be fair, the new book at the heart of the conservative pushback, Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, does highlight some striking trends. Among white Americans with a high school education or less, marriage rates and male labor force participation are down, while births out of wedlock are up. Clearly, white working-class society has changed in ways that don’t sound good.

    But the first question one should ask is: Are things really that bad on the values front?

    Mr. Murray and other conservatives often seem to assume that the decline of the traditional family has terrible implications for society as a whole. This is, of course, a longstanding position. Reading Mr. Murray, I found myself thinking about an earlier diatribe, Gertrude Himmelfarb’s 1996 book, The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values, which covered much of the same ground, claimed that our society was unraveling and predicted further unraveling as the Victorian virtues continued to erode.

    Yet the truth is that some indicators of social dysfunction have improved dramatically even as traditional families continue to lose ground. As far as I can tell, Mr. Murray never mentions either the plunge in teenage pregnancies among all racial groups since 1990 or the 60 percent decline in violent crime since the mid-90s. Could it be that traditional families aren’t as crucial to social cohesion as advertised?

    Still, something is clearly happening to the traditional working-class family. The question is what. And it is, frankly, amazing how quickly and blithely conservatives dismiss the seemingly obvious answer: A drastic reduction in the work opportunities available to less-educated men.

    Most of the numbers you see about income trends in America focus on households rather than individuals, which makes sense for some purposes. But when you see a modest rise in incomes for the lower tiers of the income distribution, you have to realize that all -- yes, all -- of this rise comes from the women, both because more women are in the paid labor force and because women's wages aren't as much below male wages as they used to be.

    For lower-education working men, however, it has been all negative. Adjusted for inflation, entry-level wages of male high school graduates have fallen 23 percent since 1973. Meanwhile, employment benefits have collapsed. In 1980, 65 percent of recent high-school graduates working in the private sector had health benefits, but, by 2009, that was down to 29 percent.

    So we have become a society in which less-educated men have great difficulty finding jobs with decent wages and good benefits. Yet somehow we're supposed to be surprised that such men have become less likely to participate in the work force or get married, and conclude that there must have been some mysterious moral collapse caused by snooty liberals. And Mr. Murray also tells us that working-class marriages, when they do happen, have become less happy; strange to say, money problems will do that.

    One more thought: The real winner in this controversy is the distinguished sociologist William Julius Wilson.

    Back in 1996, the same year Ms. Himmelfarb was lamenting our moral collapse, Mr. Wilson published When Work Disappears: The New World of the Urban Poor, in which he argued that much of the social disruption among African-Americans popularly attributed to collapsing values was actually caused by a lack of blue-collar jobs in urban areas. If he was right, you would expect something similar to happen if another social group -- say, working-class whites -- experienced a comparable loss of economic opportunity. And so it has.

    So we should reject the attempt to divert the national conversation away from soaring inequality toward the alleged moral failings of those Americans being left behind. Traditional values aren’t as crucial as social conservatives would have you believe -- and, in any case, the social changes taking place in America's working class are overwhelmingly the consequence of sharply rising inequality, not its cause.

    — Doug Henwood & Sabrina Tavernise & Paul Krugman
    LBO and New York Times

    2012-02-10

    http://lbo-news.com/2012/02/10/how-to-stop-worrying-about-class/

    na


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