President Obama is expected to talk about the issue of wealth inequality in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday. The question is whether he will advocate policies that actually address it or continue to push education policies that ignore the real problems facing poor children. The following was written by Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center, located at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. He is the author of the 2008 book, “NeoVouchers: The Emergence of Tuition Tax Credits for Private Schooling.”
By Kevin Welner
Tuesday’s State of the Union address will apparently focus on issues of wealth inequality in the United States. The impact of poverty is extremely important for issues such as housing, nutrition, health and safety. Additionally, education researchers like me have been hollering from the rooftops, hoping policymakers and others will understand that poverty is the biggest impediment to children’s academic success. So this focus is long overdue and certainly welcome. Yet I worry that the president will slip from an accurate diagnosis to unproven and ineffectual treatments.
The diagnosis is straightforward. I expect that the president will have no trouble describing enormous and increasing wealth gaps. We learned from Oxfam last week that “the world’s 85 richest people own the same amount as the bottom half of the entire global population,” which is over 7 billion people.
In the United States, the picture is just as shocking. In a 2013 UNICEF report on child poverty in 35 developed countries, the United States came in 34th, second to last—between Bulgaria and Romania, two much poorer countries overall. Twenty-three percent (23%) of children in the US live in poverty.
According to analyses in an October 2013 report from the Southern Education Foundation, 48% of the nation’s 50 million public-school students were in low-income families (qualified for free or reduced-price meals). This level of child poverty implicates not just access to breakfast or lunch. These children face issues of:
- Housing security and housing (and thus school) transiency,
- Resources available at the local school,
- Resources available in the child’s home and community as well as the safety in that community,
- Access to enriching programs after school and over the summer (and within the school),
- Access to medical and dental care,
- The expectations that educators and others have for a child’s academic and employment future,
- The likelihood of the child being subjected to disproportionate discipline and being pushed into the school-to-prison pipeline, and
- The viability and affordability of attending college.
Many of the opportunity gaps of the sort described above arise from policies and practices within our schools. But many more—and arguably the most devastating—arise from opportunities denied to children in their lives outside of schools.
When the speeches are rolled out on Tuesday, watch out for evidence-free policy promises. President Obama, I fear, may continue to push for more test-based accountability policies like No Child Left Behind and may hold out the false hope of so-called high-achieving charter schools. The Republican response, I fear, will hold out the related false hope of vouchers, neo-vouchers, and other policies that shift public money from public to private schools. Neither charter schools nor voucher programs have been shown to make a meaningful dent in opportunity gaps or achievement gaps.
Poverty is the main cause of these gaps, and addressing poverty is the most sensible and practical approach for closing those gaps. Our nation will not escape its devastating educational inequality so long as we have massive wealth inequality. Yes, if we ever truly invested in the schools serving our children in poverty—invested in a way that provided tremendously enriched opportunities for those children, giving them equal overall opportunities with the nation’s more advantaged children—we might expect to see a meaningful reduction of inter-generational inequality. But that’s not what we do. Instead, we heap demands on those schools, deprive them of the resources they urgently need, and then declare them to be “failing schools” when they don’t perform miracles.
These nonsensical policies come with an astronomical economic cost and cost to our democracy. Economists Clive Belfield and Hank Levin conservatively estimate that the economic benefit of closing the opportunity gap by just one-third would result in $50 billion in fiscal savings and $200 billion in savings from a societal perspective (for example, by lowering rates of crime and incarceration). These figures are annual in the sense that, for instance, each year a group of students drops out and, over their lifetimes, that dropping out will collectively result in a fiscal burden of $50 billion. By point of comparison, Belfield and Levin note, total annual taxpayer spending on K-12 education, including national, state and local expenditures, is approximately $570 billion. (These analyses are from their chapter in Closing the Opportunity Gap.)
The president’s State of the Union Address and the Republican response will both, it seems, speak to the American people about wealth inequality. They will both, it seems, offer some policy proposals aimed—rhetorically, at least—at addressing this major impediment to the American Dream. To some extent, we may hear about wise, evidenced-based approaches like expanding access to high-quality preschool. But watch out for speeches that identify real problems but then offer nothing more than repackaged, failed policies.
Those who are not serious about addressing inequality will cynically try to figure out, “How do I repackage my existing policy agenda and sell it as a cure for inequality?” Instead, the serious question we should be asking is, “How do I design, pass, and implement a package of policies that have been shown to be effective at addressing wealth inequality and the damage caused by that inequality?”
The nation’s most vulnerable children deserve answers to that serious question. We should honestly consider policies like a guaranteed minimum income, increases in the minimum wage, and a tax structure that shifts the burden toward the extremely wealthy. The way to reduce wealth inequality is to do just that: reduce wealth inequality. Our public schools can help, but they cannot do it alone.