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.
The former New York mayor is the splashy hire, but the addition of two other attorneys to the president’s team may say more about where the Mueller probe is going.
Sometimes the biggest news items on a given day aren’t the most telling ones.
Consider three stories on Thursday about President Trump’s legal issues. First, Bloomberg reported that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told the president last week that he is not a target of either special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation nor of a separate investigation in Manhattan that produced a raid on his longtime fixer, Michael Cohen.
A few hours later, Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, U.S. Attorney, and presidential candidate, said he was joining Trump’s legal team, telling The Washington Post, “I’m doing it because I hope we can negotiate an end to this for the good of the country and because I have high regard for the president and for Bob Mueller.”
Floyd Landis, a former teammate of the cyclist’s, just won more than $1 million in a legal case against Armstrong. Here are his thoughts on the suit, cycling, and his onetime rival.
At 5:19 p.m. on Friday, April 30, 2010, Floyd Landis hit send on what would prove the most consequential email of his life. Addressed to the then-CEO of USA Cycling, Steve Johnson, the email bore the subject line “nobody is copied on this one so it’s up to you to demonstrate your true colors….” It went on to detail, year by year, how Landis and other members of the United States Postal Service team had used illegal performance-enhancing drugs and methods to dominate the sport of cycling and claim victories at the sport’s premier event, the Tour de France. The email, later included in Landis’s 2012 affidavit for a United States Anti-Doping Agency (usada) investigation, clearly implicated many of his former teammates—most famously, the seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong (who declined to comment for this article).
The former first lady was notably eager to learn about people she didn’t understand—and recognize she might have been wrong about them.
Some famous people are much less interesting in person than you would expect. Some are more interesting. And a few—a very few—rock your world. For me, Barbara Bush, who left us on Tuesday, occupies that last category, almost by herself.
Many of the tributes to the former first lady portray her as a throwback to an earlier era of American politics, the silver-haired doyenne of a political dynasty. But I came to value her for an additional reason. Her country changed dramatically during her long, full life. But even as some in her Republican Party recoiled from those shifts, Barbara Bush never ceased questioning, learning, and adapting—changing along with the nation that she and her family served.
A crop of books by disillusioned physicians reveals a corrosive doctor-patient relationship at the heart of our health-care crisis.
For someone in her 30s, I’ve spent a lot of time in doctors’ offices and hospitals, shivering on exam tables in my open-to-the-front gown, recording my medical history on multiple forms, having enough blood drawn in little glass tubes to satisfy a thirsty vampire. In my early 20s, I contracted a disease that doctors were unable to identify for years—in fact, for about a decade they thought nothing was wrong with me—but that nonetheless led to multiple complications, requiring a succession of surgeries, emergency-room visits, and ultimately (when tests finally showed something was wrong) trips to specialists for MRIs and lots more testing. During the time I was ill and undiagnosed, I was also in and out of the hospital with my mother, who was being treated for metastatic cancer and was admitted twice in her final weeks.
With friends like these, the president should probably reconsider his messaging strategy.
The presumption of innocence is essential to the American legal system. Sometimes prosecutors and the press need to be reminded of this. It’s not as often that the allies of a defendant, or even a prospective defendant, forget.
Yet allies of President Trump have made some peculiar comments over the last few days, as Jonathan Chait, Josh Barro, and Orin Kerr note. Anthony Scaramucci says Michael Cohen would not flip on Trump because he is “a very loyal person.” Alan Dershowitz, enjoying a strange encore act as Trump’s most prominent legal defender, told Politico, “That’s what they’ll threaten him with: life imprisonment. They’re going to threaten him with a long prison term and try to turn him into a canary that sings.”
A new study warns it has become a “highly altered, degraded system.”
Once upon a time, there was a city so dazzling and kaleidoscopic, so braided and water-rimmed, that it was often compared to a single living body. It clustered around a glimmering emerald spine, which astronauts could glimpse from orbit. It hid warm nooks and crannies, each a nursery for new life. It opened into radiant, iris-colored avenues, which tourists crossed oceans to see. The city was, the experts declared, the planet’s largest living structure.
Then, all at once, a kind of invisible wildfire overran the city. It consumed its avenues and neighborhoods, swallowed its canyons and branches. It expelled an uncountable number of dwellers from their homes. It was merciless: Even those who escaped the initial ravishment perished in the famine that followed.
To get a job at the Museum of Ice Cream, hopeful future employees show up at the weekly casting call, Tuesdays at noon. They head to the former Savings Union Bank in San Francisco’s financial district, where pink banners announce, in minimalist font, the name of the employer-to-be. Inside, there are giant animal cookies on carousel mounts. Gardens of gummies. A minty scent wafting through a jungle of mint leaves. Each day, roughly 1,700 people pay $38 a ticket to march through the maze of rooms, licking pink vanilla soft-serve cones, following instructions from a cotton candy server to text someone in their life whom they consider the “cherry on top,” and, all the while, angling for photos. It is as if Willy Wonka had redesigned his factory for the selfie age.
It only took five minutes for Gavin Schmidt to out-speculate me.
Schmidt is the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (a.k.a. GISS) a world-class climate-science facility. One day last year, I came to GISS with a far-out proposal. In my work as an astrophysicist, I’d begun researching global warming from an “astrobiological perspective.” That meant asking whether any industrial civilization that rises on any planet will, through their own activity, trigger their own version of a climate shift. I was visiting GISS that day hoping to gain some climate science insights and, perhaps, collaborators. That’s how I ended up in Gavin’s office.
Just as I was revving up my pitch, Gavin stopped me in my tracks.
The intense media focus on President Trump’s personal dramas hurts the party’s ability to sell its message to the voters it needs most.
It was telling that as Tax Day arrived this week, the media’s focus was riveted not on the massive tax overhaul that President Trump recently signed into law, but on James Comey, Stormy Daniels, and Michael Cohen.
In their own ways, these three players in the Trump drama symbolize the ethical storms and moral challenges constantly buffeting the president. Those tempests have imposed an unmistakable political cost on Trump—whose approval rating remains far below what might be expected in an economy this strong—and they represent an inescapable threat to Republicans in the November midterm elections.
What’s ironic is that these storms pose a challenge for Democrats, too: The intense media attention on Trump’s personal deficiencies might not actually move many more voters than they already have, and the economic message pushed by Democrats—one that’s rooted, in part, in the tax bill—is having a hard time breaking through.
The U.K.’s “Windrush” scandal shows the wide reach of the country’s immigration crackdown.
In the aftermath of World War II, the British government invited thousands of people from Caribbean countries in the British Commonwealth to immigrate to the United Kingdom and help address the war-torn country’s labor shortages. Now, nearly 70 years later, many of those same people, now elderly, are having their legal status in the country questioned and are facing deportation.
Though the deportation threats date as far back as October, the crisis burst into wider view this week after Caribbean diplomats representing a dozen Commonwealth nations chastisedthe U.K. government publicly. “This is about people saying, as they said 70 years ago, ‘Go back home.’ It is not good enough for people who gave their lives to this country to be treated like this,” Guy Hewitt, the high commissioner from Barbados to the U.K., said at a gathering of the diplomats.