Poverty gap widens

The achievement gap is widening between high-income and low-income children, even as the black-white  gap is narrowing, reports the New York Times, citing research at Stanford and the University of Michigan.

. . . wealthy parents invest more time and money than ever before in their children (in weekend sports, ballet, music lessons, math tutors, and in overall involvement in their children’s schools), while lower-income families, which are now more likely than ever to be headed by a single parent, are increasingly stretched for time and resources.

“The pattern of privileged families today is intensive cultivation,” said Frank Furstenberg, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. By 2007, upper-class parents were spending twice as much on their children as wealthy parents in 1972; spending by low-income parents grew by 20 percent.

While low-income children are watching TV, affluent children are visiting the museum, the aquarium and the library.

The cultural divide between well-educated and less-educated Americans is growing, argues Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. “When the economy recovers, you’ll still see all these problems persisting for reasons that have nothing to do with money and everything to do with culture,” he said.

Update: On his new blog, Dan Willingham suggests another possible explanation for the poverty gap. Poor parents and children live under constant, debilitating stress. He also finds cause for optimism:

Some countries, (e.g., Hong Kong), despite an enormous disparity between rich and poor, manage to even the playing field when the kids are at school. The US does a particularly poor job at this task; wealthy kids enjoy a huge advantage over poor kids.

Yes, Hong Kong is different from the U.S., Willingham concedes. But we should try to learn what they’re doing right.

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  1. Easy way to fix the gap… increase taxes on successful couples and promote policies that weaken a sense of responsibility to others. Oh wait, they’re already doing it.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Actually, the government needs to step in and provide free public education, food supplements, and housing supports so that these poor folks can have access to a quality education for their young, nutritious food, and safe home environments. The government also needs to form agencies and hire teams of experts to study, assist, and re-educate these folks. This will offer employment opportunities to the many intelligent and well-educated college graduates of the middle class. Of course, those teams and agencies need to be headed by the very best of the best from the ivy leagues that have been studying the latest in social science and have such a sophisticated understanding of human behavior.

      Thank goodness we have such civic minded elites and a competent and industrious middle class whose only aim to better our society so that we can all one day become just like them. They so generously set aside their own class interests to help those unfortunates. Our university system is a wonderful example of this.

      We will need to work diligently against the agents of ignorance who insist on holding the poor back with their retro-grade religious organizations and small minded associations. Those folks only damage the march towards a more thoughtful, lucid, humanistic future with their insistence on guns, bibles, and law and order. They pathetically cling to their constitution and bible.

      Oh, wait. Never mind.

      • Well, one way to fix the situation would be to take your suggestion a few steps further – create large boarding schools outside of major cities that provide free schooling to low-income students…and severely limit the students’ ability to go home except for holidays.
        I remember attending a conference at an old resort north of NYC… once vacationers flocked from the city to go there (think Dirty Dancing – it was shot in the area at another resort), now the facilities are crumbling and the resorts barely survive. It had stables, skiing facilities, ice rinks, large chunks of forested land, access to a lake… imagine the possibilities if inner-city youth essentially lived there year-round.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          By “inner-city youth” I presume you mean mostly black and Hispanic kids. You, sir, are obviously a racist. Your goal being to separate parent and child to indoctrinate these innocents with the bourgeoisie values of the middle class – to deracinate them. How in the world will college professors, cutting edge political activists, artists and community organizers be able to lead the van guard of the revolution if their shock troops are paying a mortgage and socking way savings in a 401k? Of course the college professors, cutting edge political activists, artists, and community organizers are themselves paying mortgages and socking away savings in their 401k – and applying for grants to study the effects of poverty and racism on the underclass, writing books on said subject, and organizing NGO’s to draw attention to income inequality in the USA.

          Sorry, I’m just half-amusing myself here.

        • The black mayor of one of our big cities (I forget which one) once said that bringing back orphanages might give many kids a better upbringing than what already had. This was probably 20 years ago and I can still remember the screams of outrage.

    • That whole dependency thing is racist……or something.

  2. Deirdre Mundy says:

    My family took a weekend trip to Cincinatti – my husband had a job interview and I wanted to take the kids to the zoo, since it regularly shows up on “best of” lists.

    At the hotel, I met a clerk who lived down the street from the zoo who had 3 kids. She’d never taken them to the zoo, because she preferred 3-D movies. Zoo tickets would have been cheaper, and she had a decent job.

    There’s no subsidy that can fix the culture issue– middlebrow culture has died, and elites underestimated how necessary it was for cultural stability and educational achievement.

    (My Grandparents, neither of whom went to college, had a set of Britannica’s Great Books in the house. Among their children are: a lawyer, a teacher, an engineer and a journalist. They were never wealthy. Culture, not money, contributed to the kids’ success.

    • That is a nice zoo.

      I live in Boston and I heard some teacher babbling about how they were going to take kids to the beach because they didn’t have the opportunity. You can take the T to the beach everyday.. How can they not have the opportunity?

      • I remember reading about a poor, black DC kid who was working incredibly hard in school and working with teachers after school, because he wanted to go to an Ivy League college. He did go to Brown, but the in the book (A Hope in the Unseen) he talks about how alien a world it was, because he was completely unfamiliar with the whole culture his classmates took for granted and to which they constantly referred. He had never visited a library, a museum, a historical site or any government building, despite the fact that DC is crammed with all of the above – free – and those not within walking distance are easy hops on the metro. I really wonder why some of his teachers didn’t encourage him to explore them. Culture really does matter.

        • I taught in Cleveland, just about 2 miles from the lake, and was amazed how many kids had NEVER visited it.

          The library thing? Sometimes kids lose books, and have fines, but can’t pay. Our local library used to periodically run amnesty days, when kids could re-apply for a card, without penalty from past fines. That was a VERY successful program.

          All of those cultural things are, in fact, free. However, it requires that the parents value them, which, in fact, many don’t.

          The trouble with the elite disdain for middlebrow culture is that they have eliminated any exposure to it in schools. Students who don’t encounter it in school generally don’t understand it, or find anything of value in it. So, they stick with pop culture.

          in my school days, we attended Shakespearean plays, symphony concerts, and other readily-available events. Because we had some exposure, most of us could as least marginally appreciate those cultural events.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:


    One difference, some observers have suggested, betweenn libs and righties is that libs see middle class folks have money and want to give the poor money, figuring that will make them middle class. Righties see that people who are middle class have money because they are middle class, which is to say, doing things the middle class way and that’s why they have money.
    They’d like to get the poor to do things the middle class way and presume that would solve the problem.
    You can guess which is the harder sell.

  4. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Richard- Well, a big part of the problem is that people have free will. You can’t force them to spend their money to spend the day at a world class zoo instead of at “Thor 3D” You can’t force them to have their kids watch PBS instead of Yu-Gi-Oh, and you can’t force them to give their 4 year old paper and crayons instead of an Xbox with a first person shooter.

    You can’t tell parents they have to buy 20$ shoes and spend the other 80$ on a museum membership for the family instead of buying $100 shoes and having the best-dressed kid on the block.

    I’m a homeschooling mom married to a librarian. We live in a lower-income neighborhood (we’re thrifty). Why is it that we spend our money on Tai Kwon Do and swimming at the YMCA when our neighbors spend the same amount on super-duper-cable? Because we value different things for our kids. You can’t change parental values.

    Money is easy. On the other hand, they’re not going to spend their money on a membership to the Museum of Science and Industry—because they don’t LIKE the museum, so why would they take the kids there?

    Likewise, the people who take their kids to the Y or Library are the people who LIKE the Y and the Library. And 4-H, while practically free, will only attract the families who are pre-disposed to think “Hey! My kids can learn to rebuild and engine and breed rabbits! That’s really cool!”

  5. Deirdre Mundy says:

    One problem I see with a lot of these policies– policy makers assume we take our kids to the Art Institute because it’s good for the kids. Really, we take them because WE like it and we enjoy sharing the things we love.

    So, a parent who only loves TV will share that love with the kids. Middle class families don’t do these things because they’re ‘good for us’—we go hiking and to art fairs and on trips to see historical sites because we think it’s fun. If someone does these things from a medicinal perspective “Go tour Mammoth Cave. It’s good for you,” it won’t actually create lasting cultural change. It will just be something the kids are glad not to have to do once they grow up….

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      If someone does these things from a medicinal perspective “Go tour Mammoth Cave. It’s good for you,” it won’t actually create lasting cultural change.

      Hmmm. Maybe that’s one reason why kids who don’t like academics don’t do well when they are forced to go to school. Maybe we can’t get results that are a whole lot better than what we get now. Maybe much of our optimism about the possibility of school reform is misplaced.

      But of course lots of school is necessary because everybody uses lots of what they learned in school each day on their jobs. Oh, wait …

  6. so roger, i take it you’re not into education for the sake of being a knowledgeable and educated person? broader horizons? being able to recognize references in various books, movies, songs, etc?

    i tell my students almost daily, if all they learned was what they thought they would use, they would severely limit their opportunities in the future. don’t get me wrong, i don’t think that the institution of schools are really the best for students. but i think your approach isn’t the answer, either.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      I am very much into education for the sake of being a knowledgeable and educated person–for myself. But years of living and teaching have shown me how unusual I am. My sister-in-law tells me how strange my brother and I are, “You actually remember what was in the courses you took.” Most people don’t–because they aren’t really interested and they don’t use it.

      To say that people are “knowledgeable and educated” because they took a lot of courses and then forgot most (or all!) of what was in them is to play pretend. It is to substitute what we hope will happen with what actually happens. To then require young people to live their lives on the basis of that fantasy is cruel and unscientific.

      (There are a number of things I think all youngsters should get from school: real literacy and numeracy tops the list. The great irony is that in high school we force kids to take lots of academic subjects they are uninterested in and/or will never use while at the same time graduating people who can’t read or write on a high school level and who don’t “get” fractions.)

  7. Deirdre Mundy says:

    We’ve all been missing the key phrase:

    while lower-income families, which are now more likely than ever to be headed by a single parent, are increasingly stretched for time and resources

    It’s just the marriage gap again, showing up in another way.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Yes, the marriage gap. I’d also point out that the article is talking about the poor and the affluent – not the middle or working class.

      While it’s all terrific that affluent and well educated parent take their kids to cultural events, this whole meme about culture is being over done.

      There are plenty of middle/working class parents who spend time with their kids at sporting events, movies, and amusement parks. They probably find the museum thing a bit boring (especially the dads). Their kids are most likely alright, especially if they have a two parent household and attend church regularly.They do fine in public education because their parents still require that they behave responsibly and do their homework.

      This past year my husband and I renovated a 100+ year old house and had a bevy of working class men pass through: contractor, tile setter, roofer, tree trimmer, kitchen designer and installer, electrician, plumber , wood floor installer and re-finisher, carpet installer, painter, carpenter, pool repair dude……

      Most of these guys had kids and most of them were NOT spending their weekends at MOMA. Although the spackling guy was very literate, and we had a nice time discussing books. Conversing with most of them, their kids seemed to overall be doing pretty well.

  8. No way! Even though the federal government is dumping more and more money into education and taking more and more control over it, the result is just as conservatives predicted (lower scores, bigger achievement gaps, etc).

    You would have thought that having unaccountable bureaucrats taking control away from parents and families and acting on autocratic rules and regulations from the government would lead to a better world, but it looks like the reality is that the opposite happens.

    Odd- it’s almost as if free people making free choices over their families and property had much better educational results than the new liberal system in education has had.

    Although I am sure the liberals will start chanting now ‘more cowbell!’

    • The “conservatives” are the unaccountable bureaucrats, and yet you blame the liberals.

      • Now we’re talking about definitions of words, not about policy or real world things. In the 19th century US and in modern Europe, “liberal” meant “free marketeer”. In the modern US, “liberal” means “soft socialist” (i.e., Democrat). If “conservative” means “defender of the status quo”, then “liberal” (i.e., “socialist” ) defenders of the government-operated school system are “conservative”.

        So let’s use the terms “free marketeer” and “socialist” and agree that these words name positions or directions on a continuum. Then we can discuss policy and not the meanings of words.

        The problem with Stacy’s argument: “the government needs to step in and provide free public education, food supplements, and housing supports so that these poor folks can have access to a quality education for their young, nutritious food, and safe home environments” is that institutional oversight is a public good. Oversight of government functions is a public good which the government itself cannot provide. Government assumption of responsibility for the public good of “education” or child welfare transforms the free rider problem at the rooot of public goods analysis but does not eliminate it.

  9. You’re missing another point. Parents and families who see exposing their kids to these things as their responsibility will find the resources to do it. People who either don’t feel it’s their responsibility or think it’s someone elses won’t do it.

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    Many years ago, my wife taught in a rural HS. From time to time, there would be a trip to Stratford, ON to see some Shakespeare. Among other things, the performances for students had the actors remain afterwards and talk about the play, Shakespeare, acting, and take questions.
    Sometimes it would be a busload of kids, other times a convoy of parents.
    The parents were usually farmers, factory workers, gas station owners and so forth.
    They were willing to pony up the money for the tickets and lunch and dinner. It was about three and a half hours each way.
    The opportunity was there, so to speak, for people to take advantage of, in some cases by driving themselve with a carload of kids. You try that.
    Some people will jump at stuff, others can’t be dragged. Eventually, there will be a difference in outcome and then we’ll see whining and complaining.