The American Dream isn't dead--it just moved to Denmark.
We like to think of ourselves as living a classless society, but it isn't true today. As the Brookings Institution has pointed out, America has turned into a place Horatio Alger would scarcely recognize: we have more inequality and less mobility than once-stratified Europe, particularly the Nordic countries. It's what outgoing Council of Economic Advisers chief Alan Krueger has dubbed the "Great Gatsby Curve" -- the more inequality there is, the less mobility there is. As Tim Noah put it, it's harder to climb our social ladder when the rungs are further apart.
And it's getting worse.
Inequality is breeding more inequality. It's a story about paychecks, marriage, and homework. Now, it's not entirely clear why the top 1 percent have pulled so far away from everyone else, but there's a long list of suspects. Technology has let winners take, if not all, at least most, in fields like music; deregulation has set Wall Street free to make big bonuses off big bets (and leave taxpayers with the bill when they go bad); globalization and the decline of unions have left labor with far less leverage and share of income; and falling top-end tax rates have exacerbated it all. But high-earners aren't just earning more today; they're also marrying each other more. It's what economists romantically call "assortative mating" -- and Christine Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, estimates inequality would be 25 to 30 percent lower if not for it.
Marriage is widening inequality today, and keeping it wide tomorrow. Well-off couples get married more, stay together more, read to their children more, and otherwise have more time and money to spend on their children's education. As the New York Times points out, economists Richard Murname and Greg Duncan have found that high-income couples have poured resources into the educational arms race at a prodigious pace the past generation. For one, the amount of time college-educated parents spend with their kids has grown at double the rate of others since 1975; for another, high-income households invested 150 percent more in "enrichment activities" for their kids from 1972 to 2006, compared to a 57 percent increase for low-income households.
It's paying off. As Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic points out, early cognitive development has long-lasting consequences that can leave less-lucky children behind from the moment they start school -- and keep them there. But even when kids from low-income households do outperform those from high-income households, it's far from a guarantee that they'll end up earning more as an adult. Indeed, Matt Bruenig highlights the chart below from the Pew Economic Mobility Project that shows that rich kids without a college degree are 2.5 times more likely to end up rich than poor kids who do graduate from college.
This chart is a bit hard to follow, but the message isn't: it's hard to rise, and harder to fall in our "meritocratic" society. The red columns show which income quintiles people who didn't graduate from college end up in based on which one they were born into; the blue columns shows the same for college grads. As you can see, there's only a 10 percent chance that a college grad from the bottom quintile will end up in the top quintile, but a 25 percent chance that a non-college grad from the top quintile will stay there.
This is one part obvious and another part mystery. Now, it's no secret that the rich are different from you and me -- they have more money to leave to their kids -- or that they have a special jobs program called "working for dad". Miles Corak, a professor of economics at the University of Ottawa, found that almost 70 percent of the sons of Canada's top 1 percent had worked where their fathers worked. In other words, it's clear enough why so many well-off kids who don't get a college degree stay well-off. But it's less clear why higher education isn't more of a path to prosperity for low-income children.
Well, what kind of higher education are we talking about? As Caroline Hoxby of Stanford and Christopher Avery of Harvard show in a recent paper presented at the Brookings Institute, very few high-achieving students from low-income households end up even applying to a selective college. (Here, "high-achieving" is defined as the top 10 percent of overall test-takers on the SAT I or ACT, and a "selective" college is one of the top 236 schools in the country.) This, of course, is not how high-achieving, high-income students play the college admissions game. They follow their guidance counselors' advice, and apply to a few "reach" schools, a handful of "match" schools, and a "safety" school or two. As you can see in the chart below from Hoxby and Avery, this optimal strategy means applying to schools with median SAT I scores mostly in line with their own, and a few much lower -- say, 20 percentiles or so lower. The clump to the far left, around 95 percentiles lower, are, in this case, largely specialty schools, like art or music academies.
It's a totally different game for high-achieving, low-income students, because nobody tells them how to play it. Aside from magnet school kids, they mostly don't have parents or teachers or counselors with much experience applying to selective colleges. Nor do many know, despite the best efforts of the schools to inform them otherwise, that the most selective colleges have very generous financial aid packages that can take tuition all the way down to zero. Indeed, Harvard is pretty much free, including room and board, for students whose parents make $65,000 or less.
But, again, they either aren't told or don't remember this -- or think other things are more important. Maybe they want to stay close to home to help their parents or be near a significant other. Maybe they just don't believe they could get into a top-tier college. Whatever the reason, the vast majority of high-scoring, low-income students don't apply to selective schools, but opt instead for community colleges or small state schools. As you can see below, there's little concept of applying to "reach", "match" and "safety" schools. And insofar as there is, it's not strategic; applications are pretty evenly distributed across the three groups. Still, that's far better than the mountain of applications to un-selective schools that you don't really need to apply to.
This is how the American Dream ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper of elite school applications by poor kids. Like it or not, the Ivies and other top schools are our conduit to the top, and far too many low-income students who should be there are not. As David Leonhardt of the New York Times points out, only 34 percent of high-achieving, low-income students attend a selective college versus 78 percent for high-achieving, high-income students. This has to be the most boneheaded way we as a society perpetuate the people at the top. The deck is already more than stacked against kids growing up in low-income households -- their parents often aren't as involved or even around -- and we're not helping the ones who do succeed to succeed more.
There is plenty to be done. We can help parents, help parents help their kids, and help kids once it's time to pick colleges. Of course, the first step in any plan to reverse inequality is, simply enough, more redistribution. But not just more redistribution; smart redistribution. Thinking small, something like a bigger Child Tax Credit or Earned Income Tax Credit would give working families a bit more security -- which, regardless of whether people invested it in their children's education, would help their kids.Thinking bigger, something like a universal basic income -- that is, cutting checks to make sure everyone has a minimum income -- would put a floor under low-income households, and, just maybe, could make lower-income men more marriageable. It sounds utopian now, but as Dylan Matthews of the Washington Post points out, it's an idea with a bipartisan heritage: none other than Milton Friedman endorsed the negative income tax.
The second step are smart interventions to help new parents. Actually, President Obama's call for universal, high-quality pre-kindergarten is somewhere in-between these first and second steps. As Jonathan Cohn has chronicled, we know that daycare is a disaster in the U.S. now, and that top-notch pre-K can make lasting impacts, but we don't quite know how to scale that up. It might be that universal pre-kindergarten is less high-quality, and more high-quantity, but even that would help working families' budgets more -- and let parents look for work without having to worry about who will look after their kids. And, of course, it might do much more than that. But it's not just about helping low-income parents juggle their jobs and children; it's about helping them do the things they don't realize they need to do. The Providence Talks program, which the New York Times recently highlighted, could be a good model here: nurses and social workers ask new parents to record all the things they say to their babies to try to get them to talk more and use more words with their infants.
The last step is by far the easiest. It's just giving high school students better information about what colleges match their scores, and what colleges costs what given different family incomes. Right now, high-achieving, low-income students get all kinds of glossy brochures from colleges looking for socio-economic diversity if they send their scores in to the College Board, but it can be hard for them to know where to start or what to trust without much adult guidance. In other words, there's a needed public good we're not providing -- a government site (and maybe mailing list) that clearly shows students what they need to know about different schools to make an informed choice. And it sounds simple -- well, that's because it is -- but schools can help by waiving their application fees for low-income students, and maybe entirely. Fees don't do much to dissuade high-income students from mass applying to schools, but they do stop low-income ones from sending out nearly as many, if any, applications as they should. In other words, stop creating barriers to the students you say you want the most!
Ask anyone about inequality, and you're likely to hear three words in response: education, education, education. Oh, and education. And it's true: school should be the ladder out of poverty. But too often it's not; if anything, the reverse. We need to stop failing early and failing late. In other words, we need to reach kids during those formative years before school begins, and to keep kids who are thriving in high school to keep thriving in the right college.
If we don't, the American Dream will be just that.
“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”
Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington, D.C., and I was seated in a remote studio on the Far West Side of Manhattan. A satellite closed the miles between us, but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak. When the host asked me about my body, her face faded from the screen, and was replaced by a scroll of words, written by me earlier that week.
The host read these words for the audience, and when she finished she turned to the subject of my body, although she did not mention it specifically. But by now I am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the condition of my body without realizing the nature of their request. Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.
New data shows that students whose parents make less money pursue more “useful” subjects, such as math or physics.
In 1780, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, in which he laid out his plans for what his children and grandchildren would devote their lives to. Having himself taken the time to master “Politicks and War,” two revolutionary necessities, Adams hoped his children would go into disciplines that promoted nation-building, such as “mathematicks,” “navigation,” and “commerce.” His plan was that in turn, those practical subjects would give his children’s children room “to study painting, poetry, musick, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelaine.”
Two-hundred and thirty-five years later, this progression—“from warriors to dilettantes,” in the words of the literary scholar Geoffrey Galt Harpham—plays out much as Adams hoped it would: Once financial concerns have been covered by their parents, children have more latitude to study less pragmatic things in school. Kim Weeden, a sociologist at Cornell, looked at National Center for Education Statistics data for me after I asked her about this phenomenon, and her analysis revealed that, yes, the amount of money a college student’s parents make does correlate with what that person studies. Kids from lower-income families tend toward “useful” majors, such as computer science, math, and physics. Those whose parents make more money flock to history, English, and performing arts.
Most adults can’t remember much of what happened to them before age 3 or so. What happens to the memories formed in those earliest years?
My first memory is of the day my brother was born: November 14, 1991. I can remember my father driving my grandparents and me over to the hospital in Highland Park, Illinois, that night to see my newborn brother. I can remember being taken to my mother’s hospital room, and going to gaze upon my only sibling in his bedside cot. But mostly, I remember what was on the television. It was the final two minutes of a Thomas the Tank Engine episode. I can even remember the precise story: “Percy Takes the Plunge,” which feels appropriate, given that I too was about to recklessly throw myself into the adventure of being a big brother.
In sentimental moments, I’m tempted to say my brother’s birth is my first memory because it was the first thing in my life worth remembering. There could be a sliver of truth to that: Research into the formation and retention of our earliest memories suggests that people’s memories often begin with significant personal events, and the birth of a sibling is a textbook example. But it was also good timing. Most people’s first memories date to when they were about 3.5 years old, and that was my age, almost to the day, when my brother was born.
In 1992, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson got a challenge from the Dalai Lama. By that point, he’d spent his career asking why people respond to, in his words, “life’s slings and arrows” in different ways. Why are some people more resilient than others in the face of tragedy? And is resilience something you can gain through practice?
The Dalai Lama had a different question for Davidson when he visited the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader at his residence in Dharamsala, India. “He said: ‘You’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to study depression, and anxiety, and fear. Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?’ … I did not have a very good answer. I said it was hard.”
Defining common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation
Is the culture war over?
That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.
And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.
The unwillingness of the former secretary of state to take questions from the press contrasts sharply with Jeb Bush’s marked affinity for public disclosure.
Howard Kurtz reported on Sunday night that the Hillary Clinton campaign has decided to open itself to more press interviews. Kurtz quoted the campaign’s communications director, Jennifer Palmieri: “By not doing national interviews until now, Palmieri concedes, ‘we’re sacrificing the coverage. We’re paying a price for it.’”
Meanwhile Jeb Bush chatted July 2 with the conservative website, the Daily Caller. The Daily Caller interview broke an unusually protracted no-interview period for Bush. It had been more than two weeks since he appeared on the Tonight show with Jimmy Fallon. Bush spoke that same day, June 17, to Sean Hannity’s radio show and ABC News. Five days earlier, he’d spoken to Germany’s Der Spiegel—altogether, five interviews in the month of June. That brought his total, since the beginning of February, to 39, according to the Bush campaign.*
Chicago has seen a double-digit increase in the percentage of kids graduating from high school. Skeptics say educators and kids are manipulating the numbers—but does that even matter?
Desiree Cintron’s name used to come up a lot during “kid talk,” a weekly meeting at Chicago’s North-Grand High School at which teachers mull over a short list of freshmen in trouble.
No shock there, says Desiree now, nearly three years later.
“I was gangbanging and fighting a lot,” she says, describing her first few months of high school. “I didn’t care about school. No one cared, so I didn’t care.”
Had Desiree continued to fail in her freshman year, she would have dropped out. She is sure of that. It was only because of a strong program of academic and social supports put together by her teachers that she stuck it out. Desiree pulled up a failing grade and several Ds. She gave up gangbanging and later started playing softball. She connected with a school determined to connect with her.
Gentrification is pushing long-term residents out of urban neighborhoods. Can collective land ownership keep prices down permanently?
AUSTIN, Tex.—Not long ago, inner cities were riddled with crime and blight and affluent white residents high-tailed it to the suburbs, seeking better schools, safer streets, and, in some cases, fewer minority neighbors.
But today, as affluent white residents return to center cities, people who have lived there for years are finding they can’t afford to stay.
Take the case of the capital city of Texas, where parts of East Austin, right next to downtown, are in the process of becoming whiter, and hip restaurants, coffee shops, and even a barcatering to bicyclists are opening. Much of Austin’s minority population, meanwhile, is priced out, and so they’re moving to far-out suburbs such as Pflugerville and Round Rock, where rents are affordable and commutes are long.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.