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What I Learned After Taking a Homeless Mother Grocery Shopping

What I Learned After Taking a Homeless Mother Grocery Shopping

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An Idiot’s Guide to Inequality

An Idiot’s Guide to Inequality

JULY 23, 2014

Nicholas Kristof

“We may now have a new “most unread best seller of all time.”

Data from Amazon Kindles suggests that that honor may go to Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” which reached No. 1 on the best-seller list this year. Jordan Ellenberg, a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that Piketty’s book seems to eclipse its rivals in losing readers: All five of the passages that readers on Kindle have highlighted most are in the first 26 pages of a tome that runs 685 pages.

The rush to purchase Piketty’s book suggested that Americans must have wanted to understand inequality. The apparent rush to put it down suggests that, well, we’re human.

So let me satisfy this demand with my own “Idiot’s Guide to Inequality.” Here are five points:

First, economic inequality has worsened significantly in the United States and some other countries. The richest 1 percent in the United States now own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. Oxfam estimates that the richest 85 people in the world own half of all wealth.

The situation might be tolerable if a rising tide were lifting all boats. But it’s lifting mostly the yachts. In 2010, 93 percent of the additional income created in America went to the top 1 percent.

Second, inequality in America is destabilizing. Some inequality is essential to create incentives, but we seem to have reached the point where inequality actually becomes an impediment to economic growth.

Certainly, the nation grew more quickly in periods when we were more equal, including in the golden decades after World War II when growth was strong and inequality actually diminished. Likewise, a major research paperfrom the International Monetary Fund in April found that more equitable societies tend to enjoy more rapid economic growth.

Indeed, even Lloyd Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, warns that “too much … has gone to too few” and that inequality in America is now “very destabilizing.”

Inequality causes problems by creating fissures in societies, leaving those at the bottom feeling marginalized or disenfranchised. That has been a classic problem in “banana republic” countries in Latin America, and the United States now has a Gini coefficient (a standard measure of inequality) approaching some traditionally poor and dysfunctional Latin countries.

Third, disparities reflect not just the invisible hand of the market but also manipulation of markets. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, wrote a terrific book two years ago, “The Price of Inequality,” which is a shorter and easier read than Piketty’s book. In it, he notes: “Much of America’s inequality is the result of market distortions, with incentives directed not at creating new wealth but at taking it from others.”

For example, financiers are wealthy partly because they’re highly educated and hardworking — and also because they’ve successfully lobbied for the carried interest tax loophole that lets their pay be taxed at much lower rates than other people’s.

Likewise, if you’re a pharmaceutical executive, one way to create profits is to generate new products. Another is to lobby Congress to bar the government’s Medicare program from bargaining for drug prices. That amounts to a $50 billion annual gift to pharmaceutical companies.

Fourth, inequality doesn’t necessarily even benefit the rich as much as we think. At some point, extra incomes don’t go to sate desires but to attempt to buy status through “positional goods” — like the hottest car on the block.

The problem is that there can only be one hottest car on the block. So the lawyer who buys a Porsche is foiled by the C.E.O. who buys a Ferrari, who in turn is foiled by the hedge fund manager who buys a Lamborghini. This arms race leaves these desires unsated; there’s still only one at the top of the heap.

Fifth, progressives probably talk too much about “inequality” and not enough about “opportunity.” Some voters are turned off by tirades about inequality because they say it connotes envy of the rich; there is more consensus on bringing everyone to the same starting line.

Unfortunately, equal opportunity is now a mirage. Indeed, researchers find that there is less economic mobility in America than in class-conscious Europe.

We know some of the tools, including job incentives and better schools, that can reduce this opportunity gap. But the United States is one of the few advanced countries that spends less educating the average poor child than the average rich one. As an escalator of mobility, the American education system is broken.

There’s still a great deal we don’t understand about inequality. But whether or not you read Piketty, there’s one overwhelming lesson you should be aware of: Inequality and lack of opportunity today constitute a national infirmity and vulnerability — and there are policy tools that can make a difference.”

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Why Do Other Rich Nations Spend So Much Less on Healthcare?

Why Do Other Rich Nations Spend So Much Less on Healthcare?

 JUL 23 2014, 9:57 AM ET

“Despite the news last week that America’s healthcare spending will not be rising at the sky-high rate that was once predicted, the fact remains that the U.S. far outspends its peer nations when it comes to healthcare costs per capita. This year the United States will spend almost 18 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) on healthcare—six percentage points more than the Netherlands, the next highest spender. Because the U.S. GDP in 2014 will be approximately 17 trillion dollars, those six percentage points over the Netherlands amount to one trillion dollars in additional spending. The burden to the average household through lost wages, insurance premiums, taxes, out-of-pocket care, and other costs will be more than $8,000.

Why does the United States spend so much more? The biggest reason is that U.S. healthcare delivers a more expensive mix of services. For example, a much larger proportion of physician visits in the U.S. are to specialists who get higher fees and usually order more high-tech diagnostic and therapeutic procedures than primary care physicians.

Compared with the average OECD country, the U.S. delivers (population adjusted) almost three times as many mammograms, two-and-a-half times the number of MRI scans, and 31 percent more C-sections. Also, the U.S. has more stand-by equipment, for example, 1.66 MRI machines per 6,000 annual scans vs. 1.06 machines. The extra machines provide easier access for Americans, but add to cost. Similarly, occupancy rates in U.S. acute care hospitals are much lower than in OECD countries, reducing the likelihood of delays in admissions, but building that extra capacity adds to cost. Aggressive treatment of very sick elderly also makes the mix expensive. In the U.S. many elderly patients are treated in intensive care units (ICUs), but in other countries they would receive only palliative care. More amenities such as privacy and space in hospitals and more attractive clinics also add to U.S. costs.

While the U.S. mix of services is disproportionately tilted toward more expensive interventions, the other OECD countries emphasize a “plain vanilla” mix. Compared with the U.S., the average OECD country has 30 percent more physician visits and more than 30 percent more hospital days per capita.

One reason for the more expensive mix in the U.S. is it produces more income for drug manufacturers, specialist physicians, and others who have considerable influence on policy. Second, some patients prefer the more expensive mix, just as some prefer to shop at Whole Foods rather than Walmart. Third, some workers mistakenly believe that employers pay for their healthcare and that more expensive means better care. Health economists believe that the premiums for employer-sponsored insurance come out of potential wages. Similarly, the extra money the government spends for health could be used for education, infrastructure, the environment, and other public investment, but these alternatives are not readily apparent or agreed upon. Does the more expensive mix result in better health outcomes? There are no definitive studies to answer this question. Superficially, it appears that the systems in the other countries are more effective because their life expectancy is higher. But their advantage may be attributable to non-medical factors such as significantly lower poverty rates.

A second important reason for higher healthcare spending in the U.S. is higher prices for inputs such as drugs and the services of specialist physicians. The prices of branded prescription drugs in the U.S. are, on average, about double those in other countries. The fees of specialist physicians are typically two to three times as high as in other countries. The lower prices and fees abroad are achieved by negotiation and controls by governments who typically pay for about 75 percent of all medical care. Government in the U.S. pays about 50 percent, which would still confer considerable bargaining power, but the government is kept from exerting it by legislation and a Congress sensitive to interest-group lobbying.

The third and last important reason for higher spending in the U.S. is high administrative costs of insurance. This includes private insurance which covers more than half the insured population. Each year scores of insurance companies must estimate appropriate premiums for plans they wish to sell to several million employers plus 20 to 30 million individuals. In addition, hospitals, clinics, and individual physicians incur substantial costs in billing for each test, visit, and procedure regardless of whether they are covered by private or public insurance or self-pay. Many of our peer countries have lower administrative costs through more coordination, standardization, and in some countries a single national system or several regional healthcare-insurance systems, even when the provision of care is primarily a private-sector responsibility.

The complexity of private-sector insurance is not in the public interest. Each company offers many plans that differ in coverage, deductibles, co-pays, premiums, and other features that make it difficult for buyers to compare the prices of different policies. For most goods and services, wider choice for consumers is assumed to contribute to well-being. In the case of health insurance, however, the fact that the customer knows more than the insurance company about his or her likely use of care results in adverse selection. If the company sets a premium based on average utilization, the company will lose money on the high users and will lose as customers those who expect to use less than the average. It is not efficient or fair to allow a family to choose a plan with generous maternity benefits when they are planning to have a baby and then switch to a plan with no maternity benefits when they are not.

If we turn the question around and ask why healthcare costs so much less in other high-income countries, the answer nearly always points to a larger, stronger role for government. Governments usually eliminate much of the high administrative costs of insurance, obtain lower prices for inputs, and influence the mix of healthcare outputs by arranging for large supplies of primary-care physicians and hospital beds while keeping tight control on the number of specialist physicians and expensive technology. In the United States, the political system creates many “choke points” for diverse interest groups to block or modify government’s role in these areas.

For those who would like to limit government control, there is an alternative route to more efficient healthcare through “managed competition,” proposed by Alain Enthoven, a Stanford University Business School Professor, more than 25 years ago. It is based on integrated group practice, which brings the insurance function, physicians, hospital, drugs, and other elements of care into a single organization that takes responsibility for the health of a defined population for an annual risk-adjusted per capita payment. Examples include the Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound in Seattle and the Kaiser Permanente organizations in California.

Such organizations deliver high-quality care at lower costs, and some employers offer such a plan as one option, but most don’t. And even those employers that do offer a low-cost integrated group practice as an option typically pay the same percentage subsidy of premium regardless of whether the employee chooses an expensive plan or the low-cost plan. For managed competition to be most effective, employees should be required to pay the marginal excess of a high-cost plan over the low-cost plan. For one large employer who did follow this approach, 71 percent of the hourly paid men chose the low-cost integrated group practice while 63 percent of the salaried men chose one of the more expensive plans.(This statistic comes from a study in progress by Enthoven and myself.)

With regard to healthcare, the United States is at a crossroads. Whether the Affordable Care Act will significantly control costs is uncertain; its main thrust is to reduce the number of uninsured. The alternatives seem to be a larger role for government or a larger role for managed competition in the private sector. Even if the latter route is pursued, government is the only logical choice if the country wants to have universal coverage. There are two necessary and sufficient conditions to cover everyone for health insurance: Subsidies for the poor and the sick and compulsory participation by everyone. Only government can create those conditions.”

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Food stamps do work

May 31, 2013
A congressional committee is wading through a mountain of paperwork on the farm bill, which includes food stamps.

A congressional committee is wading through a mountain of paperwork on the farm bill, which includes food stamps. / AP

“My name is Trish Thomas Henley, and I’m an assistant professor of early modern literature and culture at the University of Cincinnati. I received my B.A. and M.A. from the University of Idaho and hold a Ph.D. from Florida State University. My first book was published in 2012. I’m also a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Cincinnati and a mother of four boys.

My current life – as a teacher, volunteer, published author, homeowner and middle-class taxpayer – would not have been possible without government aid. In 1993, I was a single parent with a 3-year-old and an 18-month-old. Even though I was working full-time, making $8.50 an hour as an administrative assistant, I could not afford to pay for food, housing and day care. I went on food stamps. I remember the shame I felt every time I stood at the register while other shoppers waited for me to count out my food stamps.

The only way out of the cycle of poverty and off of aid was to go to college. I applied and, at the age of 25, began my undergraduate career. I had to give up my full-time job to go to school. Instead, I worked three part-time jobs.

I would never, ever have been able to get through school without food stamps, Pell Grants and student loans. It took a village and government aid. I was not a victim. I did not feel entitled. I, then as now, felt immensely grateful that I lived at a moment when my government chose to invest in me. It has been a smart investment. I am grateful that because of this investment I am now able to contribute and live up to my full potential.

Lately we’re hearing a lot about food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as Congress debates the farm bill. We could see anywhere from $4 billion to $20 billion in cuts to SNAP, based on the Senate and House bills, respectively. I am not able to stand by and watch silently while Congress votes to allow people to go hungry while simultaneously subsidizing agribusiness.

SNAP helps lift 50 million Americans out of poverty and puts food on families’ tables – on our neighbors’ tables.

I am telling my personal story because someone needs to talk back to food stamp stereotypes and myths. Somehow, the myths persist and are used to defend the drastic cuts that have been proposed in the farm bill. If we want to save SNAP and other anti-hunger programs, it’s time for a reality check.

Myth: SNAP recipients are inner-city minorities.

Fact: Food insecurity is neither an urban issue nor an ethnic issue. Nearly one in six people faces food insecurity, and they live in every county in the nation. In addition, 76 percent of SNAP households include a child, an elderly person or a disabled person.

Myth: People on SNAP are lazy and sign up for the program so they don’t have to work.

Fact: Eighty-five percent of households with a food-insecure child have at least one working adult. The SNAP benefit formula provides a strong work incentive – for every additional dollar a SNAP participant earns, their benefits decline by about 24 cents to 36 cents, not a full dollar. Participants have a strong incentive to find work, work longer hours or seek better-paying employment.

Myth: SNAP is rife with fraud and abuse.

Fact: Despite steady growth of the program over the past decade, fraud and abuse have been reduced significantly. A 2010 report from the USDA found the national rate of food stamp trafficking (the practice of trading food stamps for cash) declined from about 3.8 cents per dollar of benefits redeemed in 1993 to about 1 cent per dollar.

Myth: SNAP recipients use their benefits to buy alcohol, cigarettes or lottery tickets.

Fact: It is illegal to buy any of these things with SNAP benefits.

Myth: SNAP is an inefficient government giveaway.

Fact: SNAP benefits drive economic growth in every community. Every $1 in new SNAP benefits generates up to $1.80 of economic activity.

These benefits are investments to help struggling families realize brighter futures. My fellow SNAP alumni brothers and sisters are evidence that these investments can pay off over the long run.

I am living proof SNAP can provide the boost a struggling child or family needs to realize the American dream. This program works, and we should all speak up together to protect it.

Please write and call your representatives in Congress and urge them to vote against any cuts to SNAP. These are not just numbers. These are people – people who will go hungry. If we allow Congress to do this, we are responsible for that. You and me.”

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June 1, 2013 · 4:09 pm

From the Mouths of Babes

I’ve been on food stamps since August of last year to help me feed myself while I interned  at a theatre in Louisville, KY. My internship paid me $1000 for 8 months, that’s roughly $30 a week, and it kept me working for over full time (sometimes hitting 60 hours a week). Food stamps helped me make ends meet on top of a $600/mo. apartment plus utilities of $30-80/mo. and phone bills of $80/mo., etc. I got $200/mo. from food stamps which helped out enormously. I view it as the government investing in my future because I’ve paid taxes since I was 15 and will continue to do so for the rest of my life. I was lucky to have parents that paid out of pocket for my college education so that I wasn’t saddled with any debt. But, that also means that they don’t have much more left to help me survive now. So, what do you think? Am I part of the entitled poor that are sucking up tax-payers money? – Claire E Jones

 

 

 

 

By 

Published: May 30, 2013

“Like many observers, I usually read reports about political goings-on with a sort of weary cynicism. Every once in a while, however, politicians do something so wrong, substantively and morally, that cynicism just won’t cut it; it’s time to get really angry instead. So it is with the ugly, destructive war against food stamps.

The food stamp program — which these days actually uses debit cards, and is officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — tries to provide modest but crucial aid to families in need. And the evidence is crystal clear both that the overwhelming majority of food stamp recipients really need the help, and that the program is highly successful at reducing “food insecurity,” in which families go hungry at least some of the time.

Food stamps have played an especially useful — indeed, almost heroic — role in recent years. In fact, they have done triple duty.

First, as millions of workers lost their jobs through no fault of their own, many families turned to food stamps to help them get by — and while food aid is no substitute for a good job, it did significantly mitigate their misery. Food stamps were especially helpful to children who would otherwise be living in extreme poverty, defined as an income less than half the official poverty line.

But there’s more. Why is our economy depressed? Because many players in the economy slashed spending at the same time, while relatively few players were willing to spend more. And because the economy is not like an individual household — your spending is my income, my spending is your income — the result was a general fall in incomes and plunge in employment. We desperately needed (and still need) public policies to promote higher spending on a temporary basis — and the expansion of food stamps, which helps families living on the edge and let them spend more on other necessities, is just such a policy.

Indeed, estimates from the consulting firm Moody’s Analytics suggest that each dollar spent on food stamps in a depressed economy raises G.D.P. by about $1.70 — which means, by the way, that much of the money laid out to help families in need actually comes right back to the government in the form of higher revenue.

Wait, we’re not done yet. Food stamps greatly reduce food insecurity among low-income children, which, in turn, greatly enhances their chances of doing well in school and growing up to be successful, productive adults. So food stamps are in a very real sense an investment in the nation’s future — an investment that in the long run almost surely reduces the budget deficit, because tomorrow’s adults will also be tomorrow’s taxpayers.

So what do Republicans want to do with this paragon of programs? First, shrink it; then, effectively kill it.

The shrinking part comes from the latest farm bill released by the House Agriculture Committee (for historical reasons, the food stamp program is administered by the Agriculture Department). That bill would push about two million people off the program. You should bear in mind, by the way, that one effect of the sequester has been to pose a serious threat to a different but related program that provides nutritional aid to millions of pregnant mothers, infants, and children. Ensuring that the next generation grows up nutritionally deprived — now that’s what I call forward thinking.

And why must food stamps be cut? We can’t afford it, say politicians like Representative Stephen Fincher, a Republican of Tennessee, who backed his position with biblical quotations — and who also, it turns out, has personally received millions in farm subsidies over the years.

These cuts are, however, just the beginning of the assault on food stamps. Remember, Representative Paul Ryan’s budget is still the official G.O.P. position on fiscal policy, and that budget calls for converting food stamps into a block grant program with sharply reduced spending. If this proposal had been in effect when the Great Recession struck, the food stamp program could not have expanded the way it did, which would have meant vastly more hardship, including a lot of outright hunger, for millions of Americans, and for children in particular.

Look, I understand the supposed rationale: We’re becoming a nation of takers, and doing stuff like feeding poor children and giving them adequate health care are just creating a culture of dependency — and that culture of dependency, not runaway bankers, somehow caused our economic crisis.

But I wonder whether even Republicans really believe that story — or at least are confident enough in their diagnosis to justify policies that more or less literally take food from the mouths of hungry children. As I said, there are times when cynicism just doesn’t cut it; this is a time to get really, really angry.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on May 31, 2013, on page A21 of the New York edition with the headline: From The Mouths Of Babes.”

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May 31, 2013 · 7:44 pm

No Rich Child Left Behind

April 27, 2013, 6:15 pm
By SEAN F. REARDON
Javier Jaén
 

“Here’s a fact that may not surprise you: the children of the rich perform better in school, on average, than children from middle-class or poor families. Students growing up in richer families have better grades and higher standardized test scores, on average, than poorer students; they also have higher rates of participation in extracurricular activities and school leadership positions, higher graduation rates and higher rates of college enrollment and completion.

Whether you think it deeply unjust, lamentable but inevitable, or obvious and unproblematic, this is hardly news. It is true in most societies and has been true in the United States for at least as long as we have thought to ask the question and had sufficient data to verify the answer.

What is news is that in the United States over the last few decades these differences in educational success between high- and lower-income students have grown substantially.

One way to see this is to look at the scores of rich and poor students on standardized math and reading tests over the last 50 years. When I did this using information from a dozen large national studies conducted between 1960 and 2010, I found that the rich-poor gap in test scores is about 40 percent larger now than it was 30 years ago.

To make this trend concrete, consider two children, one from a family with income of $165,000 and one from a family with income of $15,000. These incomes are at the 90th and 10th percentiles of the income distribution nationally, meaning that 10 percent of children today grow up in families with incomes below $15,000 and 10 percent grow up in families with incomes above $165,000.

In the 1980s, on an 800-point SAT-type test scale, the average difference in test scores between two such children would have been about 90 points; today it is 125 points. This is almost twice as large as the 70-point test score gap between white and black children. Family income is now a better predictor of children’s success in school than race.

The same pattern is evident in other, more tangible, measures of educational success, like college completion. In a study similar to mine, Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski, economists at the University of Michigan, found that the proportion of students from upper-income families who earn a bachelor’s degree has increased by 18 percentage points over a 20-year period, while the completion rate of poor students has grown by only 4 points.

In a more recent study, my graduate students and I found that 15 percent of high-income students from the high school class of 2004 enrolled in a highly selective college or university, while fewer than 5 percent of middle-income and 2 percent of low-income students did.

These widening disparities are not confined to academic outcomes: new research by the Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam and his colleagues shows that the rich-poor gaps in student participation in sports, extracurricular activities, volunteer work and church attendance have grown sharply as well.

In San Francisco this week, more than 14,000 educators and education scholars have gathered for the annual meeting of theAmerican Educational Research Association. The theme this year is familiar: Can schools provide children a way out of poverty?

We are still talking about this despite decades of clucking about the crisis in American education and wave after wave of school reform.Whatever we’ve been doing in our schools, it hasn’t reduced educational inequality between children from upper- and lower-income families.

Part of knowing what we should do about this is understanding how and why these educational disparities are growing. For the past few years, alongside other scholars, I have been digging into historical data to understand just that. The results of this research don’t always match received wisdom or playground folklore.

The most potent development over the past three decades is that the test scores of children from high-income families have increased very rapidly. Before 1980, affluent students had little advantage over middle-class students in academic performance; most of the socioeconomic disparity in academics was between the middle class and the poor. But the rich now outperform the middle class by as much as the middle class outperform the poor. Just as the incomes of the affluent have grown much more rapidly than those of the middle class over the last few decades, so, too, have most of the gains in educational success accrued to the children of the rich.

Before we can figure out what’s happening here, let’s dispel a few myths.

 

The income gap in academic achievement is not growing because the test scores of poor students are dropping or because our schools are in decline. In fact, average test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the so-called Nation’s Report Card, have been rising — substantially in math and very slowly in reading — since the 1970s. The average 9-year-old today has math skills equal to those her parents had at age 11, a two-year improvement in a single generation. The gains are not as large in reading and they are not as large for older students, but there is no evidence that average test scores have declined over the last three decades for any age or economic group.

The widening income disparity in academic achievement is not a result of widening racial gaps in achievement, either. The achievement gaps between blacks and whites, and Hispanic and non-Hispanic whites have been narrowing slowly over the last two decades, trends that actually keep the yawning gap between higher- and lower-income students from getting even wider. If we look at the test scores of white students only, we find the same growing gap between high- and low-income children as we see in the population as a whole.

It may seem counterintuitive, but schools don’t seem to produce much of the disparity in test scores between high- and low-income students. We know this because children from rich and poor families score very differently on school readiness tests when they enter kindergarten, and this gap grows by less than 10 percent between kindergarten and high school. There is some evidence that achievement gaps between high- and low-income students actually narrow during the nine-month school year, but they widen again in the summer months.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t important differences in quality between schools serving low- and high-income students — there certainly are — but they appear to do less to reinforce the trends than conventional wisdom would have us believe.

If not the usual suspects, what’s going on? It boils down to this: The academic gap is widening because rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students. This difference in preparation persists through elementary and high school.

My research suggests that one part of the explanation for this is rising income inequality. As you may have heard, the incomes of the rich have grown faster over the last 30 years than the incomes of the middle class and the poor. Money helps families provide cognitively stimulating experiences for their young children because it provides more stable home environments, more time for parents to read to their children, access to higher-quality child care and preschool and — in places like New York City, where 4-year-old children take tests to determine entry into gifted and talented programs — access to preschool test preparation tutors or the time to serve as tutors themselves.

But rising income inequality explains, at best, half of the increase in the rich-poor academic achievement gap. It’s not just that the rich have more money than they used to, it’s that they are using it differently. This is where things get really interesting.

High-income families are increasingly focusing their resources — their money, time and knowledge of what it takes to be successful in school — on their children’s cognitive development and educational success. They are doing this because educational success is much more important than it used to be, even for the rich.

With a college degree insufficient to ensure a high-income job, or even a job as a barista, parents are now investing more time and money in their children’s cognitive development from the earliest ages. It may seem self-evident that parents with more resources are able to invest more — more of both money and of what Mr. Putnam calls “‘Goodnight Moon’ time” — in their children’s development. But even though middle-class and poor families are also increasing the time and money they invest in their children, they are not doing so as quickly or as deeply as the rich.

The economists Richard J. Murnane and Greg J. Duncan report that from 1972 to 2006 high-income families increased the amount they spent on enrichment activities for their children by 150 percent, while the spending of low-income families grew by 57 percent over the same time period. Likewise, the amount of time parents spend with their children has grown twice as fast since 1975 among college-educated parents as it has among less-educated parents. The economists Garey Ramey and Valerie A. Ramey of the University of California, San Diego, call this escalation of early childhood investment “the rug rat race,” a phrase that nicely captures the growing perception that early childhood experiences are central to winning a lifelong educational and economic competition.

It’s not clear what we should do about all this. Partly that’s because much of our public conversation about education is focused on the wrong culprits: we blame failing schools and the behavior of the poor for trends that are really the result of deepening income inequality and the behavior of the rich.

We’re also slow to understand what’s happening, I think, because the nature of the problem — a growing educational gap between the rich and the middle class — is unfamiliar. After all, for much of the last 50 years our national conversation about educational inequality has focused almost exclusively on strategies for reducing inequalities between the educational successes of the poor and the middle class, and it has relied on programs aimed at the poor, like Head Start and Title I.

We’ve barely given a thought to what the rich were doing. With the exception of our continuing discussion about whether the rising costs of higher education are pricing the middle class out of college, we don’t have much practice talking about what economists call “upper-tail inequality” in education, much less success at reducing it.

Meanwhile, not only are the children of the rich doing better in school than even the children of the middle class, but the changing economy means that school success is increasingly necessary to future economic success, a worrisome mutual reinforcement of trends that is making our society more socially and economically immobile.

We need to start talking about this. Strangely, the rapid growth in the rich-poor educational gap provides a ray of hope: if the relationship between family income and educational success can change this rapidly, then it is not an immutable, inevitable pattern. What changed once can change again. Policy choices matter more than we have recently been taught to think.

So how can we move toward a society in which educational success is not so strongly linked to family background? Maybe we should take a lesson from the rich and invest much more heavily as a society in our children’s educational opportunities from the day they are born. Investments in early-childhood education pay very high societal dividends. That means investing in developing high-quality child care and preschool that is available to poor and middle-class children. It also means recruiting and training a cadre of skilled preschool teachers and child care providers. These are not new ideas, but we have to stop talking about how expensive and difficult they are to implement and just get on with it.

But we need to do much more than expand and improve preschool and child care. There is a lot of discussion these days about investing in teachers and “improving teacher quality,” but improving the quality of our parenting and of our children’s earliest environments may be even more important. Let’s invest in parents so they can better invest in their children.

This means finding ways of helping parents become better teachers themselves. This might include strategies to support working families so that they can read to their children more often.. It also means expanding programs like the Nurse-Family Partnership that have proved to be effective at helping single parents educate their children; but we also need to pay for research to develop new resources for single parents.

It might also mean greater business and government support for maternity and paternity leave and day care so that the middle class and the poor can get some of the educational benefits that the early academic intervention of the rich provides their children. Fundamentally, it means rethinking our still-persistent notion that educational problems should be solved by schools alone.

The more we do to ensure that all children have similar cognitively stimulating early childhood experiences, the less we will have to worry about failing schools. This in turn will enable us to let our schools focus on teaching the skills — how to solve complex problems, how to think critically and how to collaborate — essential to a growing economy and a lively democracy.


Sean F. Reardon is a professor of education and sociology at Stanford.

A version of this article appeared in print on 04/28/2013, on page SR1 of the NewYork edition with the headline: No Rich Child Left Behind.”

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May 2, 2013 · 5:37 pm

A Surprisingly Uncontroversial Program That Gives Money To Poor People

by MARIANNE MCCUNE

March 15, 2013 5:00 AM
government check
 

William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

 

“Last year, a federal program called the Earned Income Tax Credit took about $60 billion from wealthier Americans and gave it to the working poor. And here’s the surprising thing: This redistribution of wealth has been embraced by every president from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama.

“This program worked,” says Richard Burkhauser, an economist at Cornell University and the American Enterprise Institute. “And there’s not a hell of a lot of these programs where you can see the tremendous change in the behavior of people in exactly the way that all of us hoped it would happen.”

When he says it worked, he means it helped single mothers on welfare find work and get out of poverty.

In the 1930s, in the early days of welfare, many of the women who received it were widows. Americans didn’t think single mothers should have to work, so the government paid them to stay home. But by the ’90s, the idea of paying people not to work seemed backwards to many Americans. If moms want to get paid, many thought, they should get a job.

The Earned Income Tax Credit started as a small program in the 1970s and was expanded under President Reagan. But it was President Clinton who turned the program into what it is today — one that effectively gives low-wage working parents a big bonus. For some workers making around $15,000 a year, that bonus can now reach nearly $6,000. As the name suggests, the money is paid out like a tax refund, when workers file their income taxes.

Mirian Ochoa was on food stamps, in debt from a divorce and caring for a son in special ed. On her long commute to work, she remembers going past McDonald’s every day and smelling the french fries but telling herself, “You have to say no, because I have to pay my rent.”

The first year she got the credit, Ochoa received $3,000. Over the years, she says, the credit allowed her to pay off debts, get an associate’s degree in accounting, get off of food stamps, and move to a better school district for her son. “I found an apartment there, and I changed my son’s life,” she says.

This gets to one feature of the credit that economists love — something that goes back to Milton Friedman, one of the most influential conservative economists of the 20th century. He argued that, rather than creating lots of targeted programs for poor people, the government should simply give them money and let them decide how to spend it — even if, like Mirian Ochoa, they sometimes spend $1,000 to take their son to Disney World and Universal Studios.

Her son’s favorite part was the Incredible Hulk roller coaster. “He’s small, little fat boy, and running and saying, ‘Mother, come with me, do the ride,’ ” she says. I say ‘No, it’s too much, I cannot do it. But go! Go!’ “

To Ochoa, this was money well-spent. Her ex-husband had promised the trip to her son but never came through. And she says taking him was a key moment in his life. Now he’s in college, studying graphic design in Orlando, Fla.

The Earned Income Tax Credit is not perfect. It doesn’t help people who can’t get work. Some people game the system. Others are eligible but never collect. But while most programs to help the poor are constantly under the magnifying glass, this one has expanded every decade since the 1970s. Encouraging poor people to work and giving them a boost for keeping at it remains relatively uncontroversial. For now.”

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March 22, 2013 · 8:16 pm