Addressing the opportunity gap

In a New York Times column on July 10, 2012, David Brooks discusses some recent findings of Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, who is best known for his work on social capital, most notably his book Bowling Alone.  Putnam’s recent work, according to this report, presents some data showing trends over the last 40 years towards growing gaps in the U.S. between different income classes in the time and money invested in children.

Putnam’s work appears to be largely as yet unpublished in the scholarly literature. Other summaries of Putnam’s recent work can be found in an article at the Atlantic by Garance Franke-Ruta, and in a blog post by David Weinberger.

Based on these reports, it appears that Putnam’s in-progress research compares investments of time and money in today’s children with investments made in children 30 or more years ago. The main argument is that there are increasing class disparities, in favor of the upper class, in the time and money invested in children. This growing gap includes investments in various “enrichment activities” as well as the time spent reading to kids or other parental quality time with kids. According to Weinberger’s report and Brooks’s report, Putnam finds that these class-based disparities are greatest in infancy.

One immediate consequence of these growing class disparities in parental investments are growing class disparities for school-age children in participation rates in sports, and in extracurricular activities such as music lessons and arts lessons. In addition, there appears to be growing class gaps in involvement in various social institutions, such as churches and community groups.  Finally, there are growing class gaps in whether young people feel that they can trust other people, and in whether they feel they have other people they can count on for support.

But what do we do about these trends? Brooks’s conclusion on policy alternatives is pessimistic:

“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.”

(By the way, there are some interesting variations between the online version and the print version of Brooks’s column. The print version asks conservatives to accept “higher taxes” and does not mention benefit cuts as an option.  The online version adds that liberals should be “morally tough” about marriage as a social norm, which is not mentioned in the print version. I assume the online version reflects Brooks’s more recent editing.)

I don’t think the policy alternatives are necessarily so bleak. There are broad-based public policies that would help improve the well-being of the vast majority of all Americans, but would particularly help lower income families and their children. Cost-effective job creation policies would help boost earnings of most Americans, but would particularly help provide lower-income families with more resources to meet a variety of needs, including their children’s needs.  High-quality universal preschool programs would help improve the adult earnings of all former child participants by similar dollar amounts, but the same dollar boost to all income classes represents a tremendous redistribution of income.

It is true that “doing something” about any large social problem requires some resources, which requires either raising taxes or cutting spending on some other program. But the required public expenditures are not necessarily huge given the size and resources of the U.S. For example, universal preschool for all 4-year-olds might have annual costs in the range of $15 billion (half-day program) to $30 billion (full-day program).  But in a country of over 300 million people, $15 billion to $30 billion amounts to only $50 to $100 per capita, which is certainly not an extraordinarily high cost. If we decided to undertake this investment, either through federal initiative, or through state and local initiatives, we could certainly find relatively modest changes in taxes or other spending priorities that would free up this magnitude of resources. And middle-class Americans would find that the benefits for their children of universal pre-K would on average exceed the costs of paying for universal pre-K through tax increases or other budget changes.

My main point is that it is possible to help the poor or lower-income groups while at the same time growing the economic pie for most Americans.  Let’s start with policies, such as high-quality early childhood programs, that have rigorous research evidence of working, and that provide broad benefits for many groups. Once we’ve done everything we can in those policy areas, we can then consider the “uncomfortable decisions” that require other Americans to make significant sacrifices for the sake of reducing income inequality.

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
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