Inequality is rising on many fronts in the United States. The gap between rich and poor in our income, health and even knowledge is getting bigger and bigger, and these developments threaten to tear at the fabric of our society.
This fall came the news that the income gap between the rich and the poor is at an all-time high, surpassing even the Robber Baron Age. According to Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez incomes of the top 1 percent of Americans grew 34 percent between 2009 and 2012 while those with incomes in the bottom 99 percent saw gains of only 0.4 percent in the same time period.
Those defending this state of affairs argue that it’s a price worth paying, since, on average, all Americans are richer. But this is like saying if Bill Gates walks into a bar, and the average wealth of the customers goes through the roof, everyone is better off.
An arguably more pernicious, devastating form of disparity is also rising: educational inequality. We can now add adult work skills to the growing number of domains, such as income and health status, that divide the haves and the have-nots. In a recent international report on adult skills conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Americans (between age 16 and 65) ranked below average out of 24 industrialized countries in the three tested domains of literacy, numeracy and “problem solving in technology-rich environments.” While some Americans at the very top know more than ever before, most Americans are falling behind.
Americans with the most cognitively demanding jobs performed well against their international peers, which is not surprising given the historic supremacy of elite American universities. However, even this edge appears to be eroding since current American college students also ranked poorly compared to their peers. Equally worrying, low-skilled Americans were more likely to be young: in the United States, 55-65 year-olds scored in the average range on numeracy skills compared to other nations but among 16-24 year-olds, they were dead last. The report cautions against over-interpretation of that finding, but it also suggests that knowledge disparities among Americans might be widening.
While all countries had some low-skilled adults (no country had fewer than 10 percent), results ranged widely by demographics and age and, in fact, there was more variation within individual countries than between them. In the United States, racial disparities were striking: 35 percent of blacks and 43 percent of Hispanics had low literacy skills compared to 10 percent of whites; the results were equally dispiriting for numeracy, with almost 60 percent of blacks and Hispanics in the low category compared to 19 percent whites.
This state of affairs shouldn’t be considered normative. Other countries are doing better; indeed, some states within the U.S. are doing better. (If Massachusetts were a country, its eighth graders would rank second in the world in science.) Educational powerhouses like Finland and Japan had the largest percentages of highly skilled adults. To be sure, those countries also have relatively homogeneous populations, with fewer foreign language-speaking immigrants.
All of the highest performing countries had low levels of income inequality and the countries with the fewest skilled adults, such as France, the U.K. and the U.S., had the greatest socio-economic disparities.
The causal relationship between income and skills is not clear, but it seems likely that poor performance and being poor are mutually reinforcing: ability gaps between poor and wealthy children open up very early and gain momentum over time as the richer children use their greater skill proficiency (such as a bigger vocabulary) to acquire yet more skills, thus magnifying the unequal outcomes. Children lagging behind in school become adults left behind in the workforce.
As the OECD reported noted, poor early education combined with limited opportunity to improve skills can create a “vicious cycle in which poor proficiency leads to fewer opportunities to further develop proficiency and vice versa.”
Americans above the upper quintile of income (roughly $100,000 or more) can insulate themselves to some extent from the discouraging experiences of those left behind. Their children can attend private schools, they can buy homes in cordoned communities, they can apply their communication and technology skills to find good jobs. But a low-skilled American workforce will eventually undermine our economy and national security within a generation, tearing at the fabric our society and unraveling our collective will.
We need to reassert that will through our commitment to institutions, like our public schools, that promote, not hinder, a civil society. We know there are financial dividends to society when disadvantaged children attend quality preschool programs. Why not save downstream social costs and enroll more kids? These United States are one nation, indivisible. But we need to take aim at the forces that are keeping our nation from being its best and correct them.
Two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson understood the pernicious force of inequality on democracy and saw public education as a way to redress it. As he explained to James Madison in 1787, “Above all things, I hope the education of the common people will be attended to.”