That doesn’t mean that if we get the policy right, every kid achieves her potential. Fate sometimes gets in the way. Nor does it mean that every kid makes it to the top 10 percent. Potentialities differ. But it does mean that neither your Zip code nor your parents’ wealth and education should influence the likelihood that you realize your potential.
That’s not the current state of affairs. It never has been. But it’s not asking for the moon to ask America to be the meritocracy that many people believe is the promise of America to its children.
Right now, we are drifting from that goal and we need to get back on track.
Economic inequality is at or near all-time highs. What impact does that have on the goal of children achieving their potential? While uniformly equal outcomes are not something to which we aspire, equal opportunities are. And, I believe our current levels of inequality are reducing opportunities for children who happen to be on the wrong side of the have/have-not divide.
With the growth of income inequality has come greater dispersion of child-enrichment goods. There’s a growing gap between what wealthy and low-income parents provide to enhance their kids’ learning — everything from after-school tutoring to sports, art, books. In fact, according to recent research, it’s grown from a factor of four to a factor of seven.
That underscores the need for continued income supports to the lowest-income families. The recent expansion of work-related tax credits has helped. Lower-income families also need more support at the local level for after-school enrichment programs.
Growing inequality is associated with lower rates of college completion among lower-income children. We’ve focused a lot of energy on access to higher education, but completion is just as important as access. We need more attention to the transition from two- to four-year schools, tapping online-learning options where appropriate. We must focus more on access to financial aid, student debt burdens and the stressors facing nontraditional, working students.
Research shows that children from poor families who received such income support have much better chances of landing a well-paying job. A recent randomized study — rare and reliable in our field — found that poor children were more likely to complete college if they had smaller class sizes in the early grades.
While more research needs to be done, it seems clear that reducing income inequality will help reduce the correlation between Zip codes and educational outcomes.
A first step to doing that would be to improve the job market for low-income parents. Increasing the minimum wage would help. New research by my colleague at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Arloc Sherman shows that President Obama’s proposed minimum-wage increase would help lift the earnings of 4 to 5 million low-wage parents.