The Income Gap and the Education Gap - and how to stop leaving children behind.

Oct 14 2007 Published by under Do Something, Education, Philanthropy, Science

Late last week, the IRS released figures showing that the income gap in the United States is larger now than at any time since they began tracking that data in 1986, and may be worse now than at any time since the 1920s. The figures, which are based on 2005 tax returns, reveal that the richest 1% of Americans accounted for 21.2% of income, up from about 20.8% in 2000. The bottom 50% of families earned 12.8%, which is a drop from the 13% that they took home in 2000.

When the Wall Street Journal asked President Bush about the widening income gap, he said:

First of all, our society has had income inequality for a long time. Secondly, skills gaps yield income gaps. And what needs to be done about the inequality of income is to make sure people have got good education, starting with young kids. That's why No Child Left Behind is such an important component of making sure that America is competitive in the 21st century.

Amazingly enough, he got most of that right. Skill gaps do yield income gaps. Providing everyone with a quality education is a good way to make sure that everyone has a chance to get into a career that will let them bridge that gap. Right now, though, that's not happening. In part - in large part - that's because we're funding education locally. Rich people tend to live in areas inhabited by other rich people. Poor people tend to live in areas inhabited by other poor people. When the tax base for your area is made up primarily of rich people, it's easy for the local government to come up with enough money to run a quality school system. When the tax base for your area is mostly made up of people who don't have much money, it's very hard to come up with the funds to run adequate schools.

If you don't believe that money makes a difference in education, take a look at this story:

PS 226, an elementary school on Sedgwick Avenue in University Heights, held its first health fair today, with the aim of encouraging healthy minds and bodies among students, parents, and the wider community.


The fair, which was organized by PS 226 health teacher Robert Romano, was held in the school's playground, where, teachers hope, a gymnasium - something the school lacks - will one day stand....

This is a school where 92% of the kids qualify for free lunch. They've got no gym. How easy do you think it's going to be for them to get the money to build one?

Of course, this is the Bronx. The borough is short of lots of things, but there's absolutely no shortage of tough people who aren't fazed by a nearly-impossible looking task. So far, they've raised a bit over $300,000 for the gym. Once they collect another $2,700,000, they're in business.

Of course, that's just a gym. There are health implications when a school doesn't have a gym - particularly in neighborhoods where front yards are something that exist on TV - but it's possible to argue that missing out on gym class isn't a huge academic handicap. So let's take another example: PS 33. Teachers there have such a hard time getting the money for supplies from the school that they're forced to request funding from outside donors (like you) to pay for things like crayons and markers, play-dough, and basic science supplies.

Or, we could get out of the city, and look at a rural school in South Carolina. A teacher there can't get the money from the school to pay for copies of Goodnight Moon and The Little Engine that Could to send home with students, and the area is poor enough that the parents of a lot of those kids have a hard time affording those books.

Education takes money. It takes education to close skill gaps. It takes skills to close income gaps. In the United States, it takes income to live somewhere that provides quality education. The children who live in areas that don't provide quality education have a hard time learning skills. Without skills, they don't earn a lot of income. Without income, they have a hard time living somewhere that provides a quality education. Without education...

The phrase "circling the drain" comes to mind. It's competing for attention with "downward spiral" and "totally hosed."

Liberals are often accused of harboring closet socialist tendencies, of wanting to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor, of thinking that there's no problem that can't be solved by throwing someone else's money at it. It might come as a surprise to some if I say that I don't think that it's bad that there's an income gap in this country. I don't think that there's anything wrong with some people having jobs that pay orders of magnitude more than most people will earn in a lifetime. I don't even think that it's wrong that people who have earned lots of money get to provide their children with better (or at least more) opportunities than the norm. People should be able to leave their children better off than they were when they were kids.

I am not here to argue for a level playing field. I don't think that the playing field will ever be level, and I don't think that it necessarily should be level. But everyone should at least get to start out on the field. The way things are now, a fairly small number of kids start out on the field. The rest are out in the parking lot, or up in the stands selling hot dogs and beer.

Education is a national problem, and it should be solved on a national level. One of the biggest problems with the educational system is the lack of money, particularly in the places that need it the most. Fixing that problem is going to require spending money - and lots of it. But if we don't, we're stupid.

If we create an educational system in the United States that doesn't leave anyone behind - an educational system that ensures that every child gets a fair and full opportunity to make the most out of their life - we're all going to win in the end. Children get every chance to move themselves up. Employers get better employees. We stop, as a nation, leaving behind kids who don't have the good luck to be born to parents wealthy enough to provide them with an adequate education.

2 responses so far

  • Brian says:

    As a Canadian, I find it difficult to understand why schools are funded locally down in the States. It's exactly like you say - schools in rich areas get everything and schools in the slums can't afford basic textbooks. Here our schools are funded at the Provincial level so everyone basically gets the same opportunities.
    Why don't they fund at the State level? Is it just the way that the tax structure is set up?

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    There are a host of barriers. Local control is one, which in some cases works just fine. I think local control is so ingrained that it will never change substanitally. A second is the low regard for teachers, both financially and in Mallard Fillmore cartoons. Third is the difficulty many parents have in making a positive contibution to their children's education. A fourth, related to local control, is lack of community support for education. The fact of the matter is that we are being less and less succesful in producing educated people and it is going to cost us our place in the world. Unfortunately, given the array of influences involved, I don't feel confident we will solve the problem.