Poor kids are falling behind in more ways than one. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich examines how educational outcomes have grown wider between the richest and poorest children. He notes that race is not the defining factor because that gap is closing. The widening gap is between rich and poor, regardless of race. Reich points out that local educational funding is based on property taxes. The richest districts fund their schools at twice the rate of the poorest.
Reich ends his article with these words:
“We’re requiring all schools meet high standards, requiring students to take more and more tests, and judging teachers by their students’ test scores.
But until we recognize we’re systematically hobbling schools serving disadvantaged kids, we’re unlikely to make much headway.’’
Another way to look at this issue is to use the words of writer Nelson Algren: “The game is fixed.”
How can America be a land where all have equal opportunity if the children of the most wealth are educated in schools that have twice the funding of the poorest school? This problem is just a matter of rich and poor. Social mobility is not what it was twenty or forty years ago. Education inequality seems to track income inequality. Land of the free and home of the brave?
Normally on Sundays I write about issues outside of the world of careers and work. But today I read a letter in the Chicago Sun-Times that made my blood boil. John Babush of Big Rock, Illinois defended the disparity in pay between CEOs and front line workers, citing the example that McDonald’s CEO makes in an hour what it takes a minimum wage worker three and a half months to make.
Babush’s first point is stunning – stunningly absurd: “How many hours do you think he or she [a minimum wage worker] would last in that job [CEO]?” No one who supports a living wage suggests that front line workers should be paid what their mangers are making much less what a CEO of a Fortune 50 company should be compensated. The question is one of degree. In the 1970s, CEOs in the U.S. earned 30-50:1 to the average employee salary. Now that ratio is often 250-300:1. Mr. Babush says we are asking the wrong question. He needs to go back to school for a little training in logic.
Worse still, Babush writes: “Anybody working a minimum wage job, should they want more income, ought to do whatever necessary to increase their value to their employer. If that doesn’t work, do whatever is necessary to makes oneself a potentially valuable asset to another employer. Keep it up and one day that minimum-wage worker might end up a CEO.” Is it possible to follow this map to success? Sure – for the very lucky few. Most successful people in the U.S. today had parents who were also successful. Fewer and fewer children born into poverty have options to rise from the class into which they were born.
“Do whatever is necessary”? Nice advice. It fits well in the myth of American Exceptionalism which conservatives like to push as a rationalization for the wealth distribution they claim to hate. Since the 1980s, middle class and working class people have seen their earnings fall, especially for those without a college degree. In the same period, the most wealth Americans have seen their incomes go up and up. Babush’s model of working hard sounds great, but is it possible in an economy where most of the new jobs pay $15 or less? Is it possible in a culture where greed drives the richest Americans to find new ways to avoid paying taxes that fund what we share in common as a society? Is it possible in a country where politicians of both parties, following neoliberal economic policies, ignore the needs of the middle class, working class, and the poor.
John Babush’s ideas have the strength of simplicity: Work hard and you will succeed. Push that balloon just a little bit, and it bursts. At first, I didn’t know why the Sun-Times published this letters, but the more I think about it, I’m glad it did. This letter gives us a chance to think about so many hard working people – now two generations since Ronald Reagan was president – have worked so hard and “done whatever it takes” to go nowhere or just tread water. We need to take a hard look at the American Dream. Is there still “equal opportunity”?
Every month we hear about gains in the private sector job market. O.K. There are more. The real question is: Are they good? Laura Clawson of Daily Kos examines this problem, and what she finds is not pretty. The number of jobs paying more than $15 an hour is shrinking while the number paying less is growing. There are seven people competing for every job paying more than $15 an hour. Our job problem is real a wage problem. This story does not address the equally important problem of those who are employed getting minimal raises or no raise at all. Unless something changes, that’s a number that will have very big and ugly consequences.
Good advice? Once upon a time, American society offered mobility, especially to those who made the sacrifice to get a good education. Writing in Daily Kos, Laura Clawson finds that things are different now in the U.S. If you want to get ahead, there’s one path to success: Be born rich.
College graduates still have better prospects than those with less education. But the research Clawson cites has found that a person without a college degree born to rich parents is 2.5 times more likely to be wealthy than the college grad who is not born to rich parents. As Ed Schultz puts it, its all about membership in the “lucky sperm club.”
Writing in Huffington Post, Senator Bernie Sanders asks some important questions about the “soul of America.” There is nothing bipartisan about Senator Sanders. He comes from the left and makes no attempt to hide his views. At the same time, the problems he discusses, especially the growing problem of inequality, should concern every America. Sanders asks us to consider how corporations earning big profits and paying less than ever before into the tax base. He also reminds us that American-based companies receive tax breaks for taking jobs out of the U.S. These are real problems, and Sanders is a patriot for putting them forward as national priorities. I urge you to read his essay.
As Americans, we live by a belief that anyone can succeed if they work study hard and work hard. In her latest labor post in Daily Kos, Laura Clawson gives us some reason to rethink this old saw. Students from the highest income groups are more likely to complete college. Students from low and middle income groups who have similar academic backgrounds lag behind.
Can we have a meritocracy if some people are set up to achieve the academic foundation for career success? Some will argue that it’s all individual achievement. That’s a comforting rationalization for those who benefit from the current system. College is the stepping stone to a good job and career opportunities. If the wealthiest 25% have a leg up, we should not lie to ourselves about who has a chance to succeed in this game. It’s fixed. The winners are selected at birth - lucky sperm club.