Evidence says educational inequality is hurting the U.S. economy

Published: Thursday, Dec. 27 2012 6:50 p.m. MST

“The story of their lost footing is also the story of something larger — the growing role that education plays in preserving class divisions,” the story said. “Poor students have long trailed affluent peers in school performance, but from grade-school tests to college completion, the gaps are growing. With school success and earning prospects ever more entwined, the consequences carry far: education, a force meant to erode class barriers, appears to be fortifying them.”

Massachusetts microcosm

Massachusetts is home to America’s oldest school, Boston Latin, and oldest college, Harvard, and the state’s students place first in the U.S. Department of Education’s nationwide rankings. But, over the past 20 years, Massachusetts has also racked up the nation’s second-biggest increase in income inequality, according to the story in The Atlantic magazine. This, in a state that gave birth to education pioneer Horace Mann, who said in 1848 that “education, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men.”

Median incomes of families in Boston’s poorer suburbs have tumbled as factory jobs gave way to service industry jobs. Meanwhile, in the town's wealthy enclaves, hedge-fund managers tear down modest homes to build mansions supported by incomes that rose by 161 percent over the past two decades.

The wealth and education of Massachusetts’ upper 20 percent hasn’t translated to overall economic health. The Massachusetts economy fared even worse than the national economy over the past decade, according to a report by the think tank MassINC, which cites inequality issues as integral to the problem.

“A key component of the American Dream is to be able to secure and maintain a stable, good paying job that can support a family and be accompanied by health and retirement benefits,” said the MassINC report. “The poor job creation performance of the U.S. and Massachusetts economies over the past decade has led to fewer jobs that provide a middle-class standard of living, especially for men and women with no post-secondary degree.”

Family matters

Changes in societal structures have left low-incomes students disadvantaged by growing up in neighborhoods that increasingly segregate them by class, and concentrate their numbers in lower-quality schools. And, fewer low-income students enjoy the benefits of stable two-parent homes, said The New York Times.

Kids from poor areas, even the brightest ones, must also fight the gravitational pull of cultural forces that compete with their educational goals — including greater risk for early pregnancy, single parenthood and depression. The MassInc study reports that the continued rise in single-parent family formation contributes to a rise in poverty problems and widening disparities in child well-being.

To combat income and education inequality, the MassINC report suggests that:

• Colleges and universities should help students obtain paid internships and cooperative education opportunities while in college, and job placement assistance upon graduation.

• The real weekly wages and annual earnings of Massachusetts workers need to be improved, especially for those in the middle and bottom of the wage distribution.

• Public policies are needed to reduce high school dropout rates, increase post-secondary attendance and college completion, and expand training and apprenticeship opportunities for young adults without college degrees.

• Increasing tax incentives for marrying and staying married can contribute to the growth in marriage and family stability with favorable long-term effects for children.

EMAIL: cbaker@deseretnews.com

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