What to do about Richie Rich

Dear Deborah,

Over the course of our dialogue, we've written a lot about children living in poverty and about inequality. But you've been practically daring me to engage on the question of the other end of the spectrum: the children of the rich. OK, fine, I see that resistance is futile!

In your most recent post, for instance, you argued,

Children are born into whatever they are born into.  That some start the six-mile foot "race" at a mile behind the starting line and others a few miles ahead is not fair, not a level playing field. A few in the bottom quintile (3 percent?) overcome the odds.  But it would be a lot easier for the message of hope to reach the other 97 percent if they were closer to the starting line, and the rich weren't so incredibly far ahead, looking back at them with disdain.  If my childless, working-age grandchildren aren't too proud to take a "hand-out" from their parents, why should the adult children of families who have experienced a lifetime of poverty and racism feel otherwise about taking a helping hand from a society they didn't ask to be born into poor?  Alas, many do feel shame.

This reminds me of the old joke about people who were born on third base and thought they'd hit a triple.

If you recall, we started our discussion last spring with a debate about Sean Reardon's finding that, in recent decades, affluent children in America (the top 10 percent in income) have pulled away from their middle-class peers when it comes to student achievement. I wrote,

Why is this happening? Here Reardon has to speculate. He considers whether it's simply the result of America's growing income inequality, and concludes that yes, that's part of the story. Rich parents have more time and money to put into their children's cognitive development because, well, they're rich. But that doesn't come close to a full explanation.

He offers a thesis that rich parents are behaving differently today—differently than they used to, and differently than middle-class and low-income parents. Rich parents are obsessed with their children's social and intellectual development. They are spending dramatically more time parenting. And they are getting and staying married. (Forty percent of U.S. children today are born to single mothers; almost none of the richest children are.)

In other words, many affluent parents are acting virtuously. That's not meant as a knock on poor parents; there are many reasons why it's harder for low-income parents to spend as much time with their children, help with schoolwork, or create and maintain strong marriages.

But let's not pretend that the behavior of rich parents is somehow "bad," even if it creates an unfortunate outcome (greater inequality). We should all root for kids, no matter how rich or poor, to reach their full potential, even greatness, as it contributes to human flourishing and may help us find solutions to the many challenges facing our world.

Still, there are a few things we could do—in public policy and in our schools—to lessen the negative consequences of the growing "opportunity gap."

Let's start with fairness. We can't, as you say, create a level playing field. The vastly different behaviors of different parents, linked to their economic situations, make that impossible. But we can certainly avoid exacerbating the unfairness that always exists. Some worthy ideas already getting attention include the following:

  • Eliminating legacy admissions to selective colleges, as they promote a type of educational inheritance that is fundamentally un-American.
  • Banning unpaid internships, as the practice curbs opportunities for young people who can't rely on financial support from their parents.
  • Restoring the estate tax, as an (imperfect) nudge against huge transfers of wealth from one generation to the next.

I suspect I'll get no pushback from you on any of these!

Of course, such policies and practices aren't going to change the picture dramatically. They amount to tinkering around the edges. In all likelihood, the children growing up in affluence today are going to inhabit an America riven with ever-increasing inequality (even if we put in place the educational and social interventions we've discussed that could improve outcomes for the poor). So what could we do to better prepare these children (including, yes, our own children) to show sincere respect and empathy for their less-advantaged peers? So they don't "look back at them with disdain"? How can we keep America's common culture from coming apart?

One obvious idea is to encourage rich and poor children (and those in between) to go to school together. One of the strongest arguments for racially and socioeconomically integrated schools, forwarded by scholars like Amy Stuart Wells, is that the children who attend such schools are less likely to develop prejudiced attitudes and more likely to live in integrated settings as adults. To be sure, as I wrote in my book The Diverse Schools Dilemma, creating and maintaining integrated schools is easier said than done. But the current trends toward gentrification in some of our big cities and toward diversification in most of our suburbs create new opportunities that can be seized by smart public policy.

In the same vein, mandatory national service could bring young people together across lines of race and class in ways that the military draft did for earlier generations.

These are imperfect solutions, but they're a start. Can you suggest others?

- Mike

This article originally appeared on Education Week's Bridging Differences blog.

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