What explains the yawning gap? Economist James Heckman says that it is more a function of parenting than income. Bad parenting=bad students. He explains: “Early life conditions and how children are stimulated play a very important role.”
Indeed they do. Children who are exposed to variety, such as museums, travel, theater and to successful role models do better cognitively than children whose life experiences are the mirror image.
Since the difference in test scores must be troubling for a society dedicated to meritocracy, what are we to make of the findings?
“The danger is,” Heckman says, “is we will revert back to the mindset of the war on poverty, when poverty was just a matter of income, and giving families more would improve the prospects of their children. If people conclude that, it’s a mistake.”
Heckman is right in saying that poverty isn’t just a matter of income; but he is wrong in assuming that money isn’t at the root of the problem. Heckman and others, such as Charles Murray, are inclined to place the blame on culture. Children fail, the argument goes, because of a culture that does poorly by its offspring. The culture of poverty is at fault; individuals and individual choices and values are to blame.
But why is there a culture of poverty? Isn’t it because schools in many areas most in need are underfunded, so there no longer are field trips, books are dated and the most rookie teachers—not seasoned stars—are in front of children who most need experienced pros?
Isn’t part of the problem that as the widening income gap means that the wealthiest are able to buy up the best educators and bid up the cost of the best colleges, placing it out of reach of the less fortunate? Isn’t part of the problem that public colleges are losing funding?
Early childhood intervention programs matter. But they, too, has fallen on hard times. Health care and good nutrition for children play important parts in cognitive development, but programs here have also been seriously curtailed. It is one thing to be treated by a good family physician when sick and quite another to be taken to the emergency room to be treated, but this is the fate of many urban poor children.
Money matters a great deal, and this is evident when jobs disappear, as industry closes down and the market crashes. This is the argument made by Paul Krugman: Traditional values aren’t as crucial as social conservatives would have you believe — and, in any case, the social changes taking place in America’s working class are overwhelmingly the consequence of sharply rising inequality, not its cause. Adjusted for inflation, entry-level wages of male high school graduates have fallen 23 percent since 1973. Meanwhile, employment benefits have collapsed. In 1980, 65 percent of recent high-school graduates working in the private sector had health benefits, but, by 2009, that was down to 29 percent.”
I think most can agree that the culture in which more and more children are raised is problematic for their future success. The question is whether the culture causes the poverty or whether the poverty causes the culture. While there must be responsibility placed in both places. But on balance, it is the lack of money that makes the stronger case.
It is too easy for those who are successful to blame those who aren’t for their own failures. The widening income and wealth gap in this country, the most serious in the developed world, doesn’t bode well for social stability. Even as the economy improves, as Reardon’s long-term view shows, without active, creative and sustained programs to address the widening gap, children will continue to suffer.