Yes, Economic Inequality Is Self-Perpetuating

A new book, released today, from Harvard public policy professor Robert Putnam, one of the few academics with considerable influence beyond academia, is almost certainly going to spur a big and (it can only be hoped) constructive debate over inequality–its causes, dimensions and cures. Entitled Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, it’s the product of an extensive research project examining families and the status of children in concrete communities around the country.

As the Century Foundation’s Richard Kahlenberg notes in his web exclusive review of Our Kids here at WaMo, Putnam’s conclusions are pretty clear and very alarming: low economic status has now matched and arguably eclipsed race and gender as a source of continuing inequality. Kids of all races born in families with low income and educational accomplishments are very, very likely to follow the same trajectory.

Putnam takes us through a panoramic examination of inequality in four primary areas —family, parenting, schooling, and community — and suggests that in each case, race and gender are declining in significance relative to class.

Now the changing relationship of class to race and gender is of paramount importance to Kahlenberg, who has long argued for replacing race- and gender-based affirmative action policies with class-based preferences. You can also expect many observers to focus on Putnam’s discussion of family structure; that’s precisely what David Brooks did today in a column on Our Kids that makes it sound like it’s all a vast paen to “social norms” involving marriage.

But you get the sense from Kahlenberg’s review that what readers should most take away from Putnam’s book is a sense of dismay that inequality is growing so rapidly across so many dimensions, and a sense of urgency for doing something about it, hard as that may be.

What is to be done? Putnam, who does an exhaustive and masterful job of analyzing the forces that have fueled economic inequality of opportunity, devotes less than 10 percent of his ink to solutions. He outlines a variety of good ideas, including expanding the Earned Income Tax credit, reducing over-incarceration and broadening access to high-quality early childhood education.

Given the evidence he lays out about the dangers of rising socioeconomic residential segregation, he wisely calls for mixed-income housing policies like one in New Jersey in which “poor kids whose families were moved into a more affluent area achieved higher test scores and went further in school than comparable kids who were not moved.” An astonishing 96 percent of the children of movers graduated from high school compared with 29 percent of the control group. Putnam also wisely calls for increasing funding of community colleges, which are under-resourced.

Kahlenberg, of course, adds class-based affirmative action to the list of potential remedies, but also interestingly notes the erosion of workers’ rights is a factor in intensifying economic inequality, and suggests civil rights sanctions against employers who illegally discourage unions and do not engage in good-faith collective bargaining.

But what jumps out at you from this discussion is that economic inequality is not something we’re going to reverse by such symbolic measures as higher mininum wage laws or even slightly more progressive tax rates. We’ve made it very hard to be poor and under-educated in this country, and we’ll have to try even harder to rekindle social mobility.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.