There is one fact about America today that has not been mentioned in the political debates: nearly 25% of our nation’s children are growing up in poverty.
This nation leads the advanced nations of the world in child poverty.
Two articles today by conservative writers suggest that some hint of realism may enter the national discourse.
David Brooks wrote a column today expressing alarm about the growing inequality of opportunity among children, as affluent parents invest more in their children and lower-income parents have not. There is some hope here that Brooks is beginning to think that the large and widening opportunity gap is a social problem, not a result of bad teachers and bad schools. He concludes by saying that liberals are going to have to voice more support for two-parent families, as though their not voicing support affected the behavior of lower-income families. More impressively, he concluded that “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.” Whether that will be adequate to stem the rising tide of poverty is unclear, but it’s a start.
Minutes after I read Brooks’ column, I received a post by Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, in which he questions whether school reform would have much affect on social mobility. He begins thus: “Voucher supporters, charter advocates, standards nuts, teacher-effectiveness fanatics—we all fundamentally believe that fantastic schools staffed by dedicated educators can help poor kids climb out of poverty and compete with their affluent peers.” But then Charles Murray came to the Fordham offices and told them that it wasn’t happening and it wasn’t going to happen.
Murray told the assembled listeners that ““The better the meritocracy, the more efficiently you identify and reward talent, the faster that social mobility will decline over time.” According to Petrilli, the audience was taken aback.
The theory behind the current school reform movement is that by pushing school choice, there will be greater social mobility and more poor kids will enter Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Murray pointed out that the doors of the elite institution are now wide open to highly talented students from “backwaters,” more than ever. But that does not change his view that class lines are hardening.
The point that I think Mike Petrilli and other reformers don’t get is that the pie is not expanding and the division of the “pie” is more unequal than ever, and nothing they do now to “reform” schools will change those facts. There may be more poor kids gaining admission to college, but the number and proportion of poor kids is not declining. It is increasing.
And this is where Brooks and Petrilli and Murray converge. The opportunity gap is growing; if we do nothing, it will continue to grow. Social mobility is declining as more tests and hurdles limit access to the top. Vouchers and charters may (or may not) boost a few more children up the ladder, but the distribution of rich and poor remains unchanged. The meritocracy, as Murray put it, gets “better” and consequently less welcoming to those without the high test scores and privileges of the elite.
As we Race to the Top, the number of places as the Top does not increase. And the proportion of children in poverty continues to rise. These are not school problems. Brooks and Murray are right to recognize that our society is hardening its social and economic arteries. The rich are getting richer, the poor are growing more numerous, the middle class is shrinking, and the working class is losing hope.
This is not a formula of which we can be proud. It demands new social policies. Who is thinking about where we go from here?