With inequality at its highest levels in nearly a century and public debate rising over whether the government should respond to it through higher taxes on the wealthy, the very richest Americans have financed a sophisticated and astonishingly effective apparatus for shielding their fortunes. Some call it the “income defense industry,” consisting of a high-priced phalanx of lawyers, estate planners, lobbyists and anti-tax activists who exploit and defend a dizzying array of tax maneuvers, virtually none of them available to taxpayers of more modest means.
The ongoing churn of test-based education reform that has stripped many low-income schools of arts education, recess, and even science is persistently justified as essential to economic recovery. As we educate children to higher standards, the argument goes, we’ll be better able to “compete” with workers from other nations. High skilled jobs will be created and filled, and the economy will again be able to support families. Just a few examples of this reasoning from both liberal and conservative voices can be found here, here, here, and here.
It’s become a taken-for-granted mantra: Until we raise educational standards — even as state after state cuts education budgets –the economy cannot recover.
And thus, it is a breath of fresh air when a (relatively) apolitical group like Standard and Poor’s acknowledges that we cannot test our way into economic prosperity, and that growing levels of income inequality in and of itself slows economic growth, in part because of declining investments in education.
It would seem possible for poor children to play at recess, draw and paint, learn science, and be prepared for robust citizenship and their place an ever shifting workforce in schools with enough resources, smaller classes, the support staff taking for granted in wealthier communities, and communities in which at least safe housing and health care are available to all.
Now, ed reformers are hell-bent on holding teachers “accountable” for educating us out of economic malaise.
Might we hope that reports like might begin to shift the conversation?
A New York Times essay on the Standard and Poor’s report is here.
I’d hope that someone who has written a book about “What Shapes Our Fortunes” would have had Sociology 101 where he would have learned the fundamentally different ways that income and wealth work in our economy. But apparently not.
In Rags to Riches to Rags Again, Mark R.Rank writes that because of a great deal of turbulence in household earning over a lifetime “we have much more in common with one another than we dare to realize.” Yet he undermines this himself.
One of the reasons for such fluidity at the top is that, over sufficiently long periods of time, most American households go through a wide range of economic experiences, both positive and negative. Individuals we interviewed spoke about hitting a particularly prosperous period where they received a bonus, or a spouse entered the labor market, or there was a change of jobs. These are the types of events that can throw households above particular income thresholds.
Ultimately, this information casts serious doubt on the notion of a rigid class structure in the United States based upon income. It suggests that the United States is indeed a land of opportunity, that the American dream is still possible — but that it is also a land of widespread poverty. And rather than being a place of static, income-based social tiers, America is a place where a large majority of people will experience either wealth or poverty — or both — during their lifetimes.
All together now: Income, that comes in *household* paychecks, regardless of how many earners are contributing to that household income, is not wealth.
Wealth inequality looks like this:
And breaking it down further:
It is no small thing for any household to attain an annual income of a million dollars for even one year.
But it is an entirely different experience to have enough wealth that one can no longer worry about income at all, can work the tax system to mask enormous amounts of income, can essentially withdraw from everyday contact with everyday Americans, can use one’s wealth to leverage political and economic power, and can know that the children in one’s household will never, ever want for a thing.
The “1%” was never about income alone.
Surely, anyone with the credibility to write for the New York Times knows that?
A few weeks ago, the New York Times published their often-blogged article on the growing achievement gaps between rich and poor children. In contrast to otherwise careful analysis, the article ended with the unfortunate and widely criticized quote:
The problem is a puzzle, he [Douglas J. Besharov, a fellow at the Atlantic Council] said. “No one has the slightest idea what will work. The cupboard is bare.”
Among those begging to differ are the scholars at the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College who recently released five white papers around the theme “Achievable and Affordable: Providing Comprehensive Educational Opportunity to Low-Income Students”.
Poor kids and their families are neither exotic nor inscrutable, and until we’ve begun to provide at least the minimal levels of support taken for granted in other Western countries, it’s intellectually and morally dishonest to pretend that their marginalization in US public schooling is a mystery beyond solution.
It’s too easy, when teaching about class and economic inequality, for the conversations to turn to what to do for them, as if economic justice were primarily a matter of charity.
The Equality Trust is compiling very good resources for shifting that conversation beyond talk of safety nets and foodbanks. Their data (based primarily in the UK but also based on studies in the U.S.) makes clear that everyone is harmed in unequal societies.
One example: They document the correlation between income inequality in a state and the rates at which young people in that state drop out. I can imagine sparking all sorts of conversations with students about possible explanations for this data (including, likely, conversations about the limits of correlational analysis, but those are always good conversations, too).
The Trust is working on compiling studies on the effects of inequality on areas from health care to global warming.
I’m updating my course websites with many of these links.