Equality of Opportunity in an Unequal World

This NYT story shows that, even as the racial gap in educational attainment has been shrinking, the income-class gap has been growing.

Note how huge the gap is: “one unit” of difference is three grade levels, and the current rich-poor gap is more than one unit. So a fifth-grader from a rich family reads better, on average, than an eighth-grader from a poor family.

Part of the reason seems to be that the investment gap has also been growing: while families at the 90th percentile of the income distribution used to spend five times as much per child as families at the 10th percentile, they now spend about nine times as much. Curiously, that’s also the family-income ratio: the 90th-percentile family income was $160,000 in 2008, vs. $17,500 for the 10th-percentile family.

So here’s the question, for those who insist that equality of opportunity is the American way while equality of result is “socialism”: in what sense are opportunities equal between high-income and low-income children? Unless parents are forbidden to spend money on their children, gross inequality of condition for the current generation implies gross inequality of opportunity for the next generation.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.