The Opportunity Gap, misconstrued

Just read a Brooks op-ed about inequality among children. Brooks gives a brief sketch of research that shows all the ways in which increasing class inequality in the United States is made manifest in inequality in investments in the nation’s children. The research paints a bleak picture, to be sure, but is it a surprise? As always, I am baffled that folks could imagine that increasing wage inequality, decreasing occupational benefits and divestment in public goods (schools, parks, the arts, libraries, etc) would not affect the children.

While I think covering “the opportunity gap” is important work, I have no idea how Brooks moves from highlighting inequality between children to a emphasizing out-of-wedlock births and tex credits as the solution to the problem. He writes:

Liberals are going to have to be willing to champion norms that say marriage should come before childrearing and be morally tough about it. Conservatives are going to have to be willing to accept tax increases or benefit cuts so that more can be spent on the earned-income tax credit and other programs that benefit the working class.

Brooks has it all wrong. His conclusion is archaic and reveals that he misconstrued the problem.

Inequality among children exists as a result of inequality between households, neighborhoods, schools and the other social institutions that can contribute to child well-being and attainments. All things being equal, increased economic inequality between parents certainly contributes to increased inequality between children. However, what is happening in the United States right now is substantial divestment in the very institutions in a position to mitigate the intergenerational transmission (as we sociologist have unfortunately put it) of socioeconomic status. Tax credits that put a few dollars in poor parents’ pockets while further bleeding money from a system that refuses to invest in children will do little to address the problem of inequality between children. Married or no, parents who struggle economically will never be able to make-up up for the gap created by private investments the wealthy can make in their children and ongoing public divestment¬†in young people. Instead, public investments in the educational, cultural and social capital of children must protect young people from the worst effects of increased income inequality.

What we need are significant, universal (as opposed to need-based) programs for children, not tax credits or moral crusades for marriage. Social supports could shore up families but even investments in families should be principally directed at children instead of applying a band-aid to the much broader and thornier problem of earnings inequality.

Take a look at Sweden, the country in which I lived and worked the last 6 months. My children and I were lucky enough to be enrolled as full participants in the welfare system once I became employed in the country (note, immediate and full benefits for all legal residents). In Sweden we had access to free, high quality and resource rich schools, a voucher system that insured free tuition at both private and public schools and inexpensive, high quality childcare and aftercare. Meals and snacks were free and healthy (no bagged lunches to strain overworked parents and make health inequality portable, no choice and no chocolate milk – just a hot, well-rounded meal). Children, like everyone in the system, receive free health care. Dental care is also free for kids. Workplaces are guided by policies that allow parents to invest time in their children, too. Mandatory meetings must take place during school hours and parents who need to work late are entitled to additional after-care at school. Both parents are expected share 18 months of paid parental leave when a child is born (with father taking at least 6 months) and a parental make work 80% time without penalty until their child is 8 years old. Parents, no matter what their income, receive a small monthly child allowance which basically covers the cost of preschool and after-care. Read more about parental supports here. In a nation where the government is charged with the task of making sure that children are able to exercise their “right to culture,” culture schools are funded by the state and offer high-quality and inexpensive art, dance and music classes.

Due in large part to public investment in children and their parents, Sweden is among the leading nations when it comes to income mobility across generations. This success occurs in a country where more than half of children are born to unmarried mothers, more than 25% of couples cohabitate and those who do marry divorce at a rate that is only second to the United States. When it comes to addressing inequality between children, the only norms that need changing are the ones that justify eliminating public goods and social supports for children.

There will always be out-of-wedlock births and single parent families. A nation that truly seeks intergenerational mobility and equal opportunity for its children would devise universal policies and programs directed primarily at the children themselves.

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