Poor kids who do everything right don’t do better than rich kids who do everything wrong (Participation)

Published October 22, 2014 by djlwsu

 October 18 at 12:13 PM

America is the land of opportunity, just for some more than others.

That’s because, in large part, inequality starts in the crib. Rich parents can afford to spend more time and money on their kids, and that gap has only grown the past few decades. Indeed, economists Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane calculate that, between 1972 and 2006, high-income parents increased their spending on “enrichment activities” for their children by 151 percent in inflation-adjusted terms, compared to 57 percent for low-income parents.

But, of course, it’s not just a matter of dollars and cents. It’s also a matter of letters and words. Affluent parents talk to their kids three more hours a week on average than poor parents, which is critical during a child’s formative early years. That’s why, as Stanford professor Sean Reardonexplains, “rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students,” and they’re staying that way.

It’s an educational arms race that’s leaving many kids far, far behind.

It’s depressing, but not nearly so much as this:

Even poor kids who do everything right don’t do much better than rich kids who do everything wrong. Advantages and disadvantages, in other words, tend to perpetuate themselves. You can see that in the chart above from Richard Reeves and Isabel Sawhill, presented at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s annual conference, which is underway.

Specifically, rich high school dropouts remain in the top about as much as poor college grads stay stuck in the bottom — 14 versus 16 percent, respectively. Not only that, but these low-income strivers are just as likely to end up in the bottom as these wealthy ne’er-do-wells. Some meritocracy.

What’s going on? Well, it’s all about glass floors and glass ceilings. Rich kids who can go work for the family business — and, in Canada at least, 70 percent of the sons of the top 1 percent do just that — or inherit the family estate don’t need a high school diploma to get ahead. It’s an extreme example of what economists call “opportunity hoarding.” That includes everything from legacy college admissions to unpaid internships that let affluent parents rig the game a little more in their children’s favor.

But even if they didn’t, low-income kids would still have a hard time getting ahead. That’s, in part, because they’re targets for diploma mills that load them up with debt, but not a lot of prospects. And even if they do get a good degree, at least when it comes to black families, they’re more likely to still live in impoverished neighborhoods that keep them disconnected from opportunities.

It’s not quite a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose game where rich kids get better educations, yet still get ahead even if they don’t—but it’s close enough. And if it keeps up, the American Dream will be just that.

Matt O’Brien is a reporter for Wonkblog covering economic affairs. He was previously a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.
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3 comments on “Poor kids who do everything right don’t do better than rich kids who do everything wrong (Participation)

  • It’s sad to see the reality of things. Coming from a minority back ground (latino) I could relate to the fact that even though my single parent mother wanted to provide educational opportunities and be involved with extracurricular activities it wasn’t possible. Financially we lived in a ( paycheck- to – Paycheck) life style, which could not be altered. Growing up with limited resources and being considered a low income family I grew the mentality of always being less competent than my other classmates. Never should it be “heads” or “tails”, “win” or “lose”, many don’t have the resources of those who are “set” future wise but do work their butt off to feel that accomplishment.

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  • This article really caught my attention simply by its title. This is definitely an issue that is disturbing and constantly being brought to low income students. When O’Brien talks about wealthier kids inheriting family business and what not it builds this idea that the wealthy want to keep their money between themselves and the opportunities for the low income is decreased. The constitution say all men are created equal but are they? I definitely don’t think so. It is sad and frustrating to have to see how hard most work to get scholarships and grants just to get the opportunity to get a good education while others get it handed to them and throw it all away like its nothing. I guess that’s just the way things are but ambition and drive that the people of lower income have I believe will always be greater then those who were born into wealth.

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  • This article was very eye-opening. It points out how kids born into a rich family have an advantage right off the bat–even in kindergarten. From the very beginning, poor kids have catching up to do in school. When you add that rich kids won’t have to pay off debt for college tuition, it sets the poor even farther back. I don’t believe that rich kids inheriting their families estate or continuing the family business is a bad thing at all, but when rich kids clearly have an advantage in school, there is a problem. Through this article alone, it is apparent that more needs to done to make sure the poor are given a fair shot to be successful.

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