As thousands of air travelers suffered through flight delays last week, the average American got a lesson in civics: when you cut government spending, it has real life consequences. Americans are fond of saying that they want to slash government spending in the abstract, but loath to point to specific programs that they actually want to cut. With sequestration, this ambivalence has come home to roost. Because the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration affect all programs evenly, the ones that touch middle-class Americans, not just the poor, have suffered equally.
We haven’t just learned a lesson about the effects of budget cutting, though. We’ve also been able to see the priorities of Congress in stark relief. The flight delays, a result of furloughs at the Federal Aviation Administration, were not the first effects of sequestration. Those were visited on the poor. Yet the FAA was the only agency that saw swift and bipartisan action. After Congress was flooded with calls from angry travelers—not to mention, as lawmakers started down flight delays for their own flights home for recess—the Senate and House each passed a bill with overwhelming support within forty-eight hours. When’s the last time you remember that happening for any other issue?
The poor have long known that a budget cut passed in Congress means hardship in real life. This dynamic was in full force as sequestration went into effect. The first to be hit by the reduction in funds, by and large, were low-income Americans. Preschoolers have been kicked out of Head Start. Food pantries have closed. Native American health services have been reduced. Thousands of cancer patients on Medicare have been turned away from clinics. Meals on Wheels is delivering to fewer elderly people. The long-term unemployed will receive severely reduced benefit checks.
While these cuts have been well covered by local media, the rest of us haven’t heard much about them. Yet when furloughs delayed flights, they dominated the media, as did the cancellation of White House tours. In mainstream cable news coverage, flights were mentioned about two and a half times more than Head Start, over twice as much as cancer patients, and six and a half times more than Meals on Wheels. White House tours were even worse: they were mentioned thirty-three times as often as the sequester’s impact on the poor.
The coverage of tours and flights was likely driven by something we don’t see very often: budget cuts that impact nearly all Americans. Targeted cuts tend to focus on programs that the poor rely on, and we rarely hear those stories. But even middle-class and well-to-do Americans were feeling what it’s like to have reduced government spending in their daily lives when they went to the airport and waited an extra hour to take off. This is surely a mere inconvenience compared to losing food or housing if you’re poor, but it’s still important: Americans of all income levels may finally be learning the importance of government spending in their lives.
As Suzanne Mettler has demonstrated, many Americans do in fact benefit from government services. But few realize it. Mettler calls this the “submerged state”: the variety of public programs that are delivered in such a way, such as through the tax code, that many don’t realize they’re getting assistance. The epitome of this contradiction is the senior who shouts, “Get your government hands off my Medicare!”
For this reason, perhaps, well-off Americans tend to be less concerned with spending on the social safety net and more interested in cutting government spending. This has huge consequences for our political system. A body of research has shown that the needs and desires of the poor rarely influence how their representatives vote. On the other hand, Congress’s priorities nearly duplicate those of the wealthy.
And here is the last lesson sequestration has taught us: just how much more Congress cares about what’s bothering upper-middle-class citizens than what’s going on at the bottom of the income scale. There are tons of different programs expecting a big impact from sequestration. None of them saw multiple bills introduced in the Senate, one of which was passed with huge support on both sides of the aisle and signed within a matter of days. Had they continued, the furloughs would have been more than an inconvenience. They could have meant sharply reduced economic output. But the same could be said of many of the cuts to other programs. The lesson is not that the flight delays should have gone unaddressed. It’s that if a budget cut doesn’t impact a wealthy constituency, Congress can’t to be bothered to fix it.
By: Bryce Covert, The Nation, April 28, 2013
Here’s a fact that may not surprise you: the children of the rich perform better in school, on average, than children from middle-class or poor families. Students growing up in richer families have better grades and higher standardized test scores, on average, than poorer students; they also have higher rates of participation in extracurricular activities and school leadership positions, higher graduation rates and higher rates of college enrollment and completion.
Whether you think it deeply unjust, lamentable but inevitable, or obvious and unproblematic, this is hardly news. It is true in most societies and has been true in the United States for at least as long as we have thought to ask the question and had sufficient data to verify the answer.
What is news is that in the United States over the last few decades these differences in educational success between high- and lower-income students have grown substantially.
One way to see this is to look at the scores of rich and poor students on standardized math and reading tests over the last 50 years. When I did this using information from a dozen large national studies conducted between 1960 and 2010, I found that the rich-poor gap in test scores is about 40 percent larger now than it was 30 years ago.
To make this trend concrete, consider two children, one from a family with income of $165,000 and one from a family with income of $15,000. These incomes are at the 90th and 10th percentiles of the income distribution nationally, meaning that 10 percent of children today grow up in families with incomes below $15,000 and 10 percent grow up in families with incomes above $165,000.
In the 1980s, on an 800-point SAT-type test scale, the average difference in test scores between two such children would have been about 90 points; today it is 125 points. This is almost twice as large as the 70-point test score gap between white and black children. Family income is now a better predictor of children’s success in school than race.
The same pattern is evident in other, more tangible, measures of educational success, like college completion. In a study similar to mine, Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski, economists at the University of Michigan, found that the proportion of students from upper-income families who earn a bachelor’s degree has increased by 18 percentage points over a 20-year period, while the completion rate of poor students has grown by only 4 points.
In a more recent study, my graduate students and I found that 15 percent of high-income students from the high school class of 2004 enrolled in a highly selective college or university, while fewer than 5 percent of middle-income and 2 percent of low-income students did.
These widening disparities are not confined to academic outcomes: new research by the Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam and his colleagues shows that the rich-poor gaps in student participation in sports, extracurricular activities, volunteer work and church attendance have grown sharply as well.
In San Francisco this week, more than 14,000 educators and education scholars have gathered for the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. The theme this year is familiar: Can schools provide children a way out of poverty?
We are still talking about this despite decades of clucking about the crisis in American education and wave after wave of school reform.Whatever we’ve been doing in our schools, it hasn’t reduced educational inequality between children from upper- and lower-income families.
Part of knowing what we should do about this is understanding how and why these educational disparities are growing. For the past few years, alongside other scholars, I have been digging into historical data to understand just that. The results of this research don’t always match received wisdom or playground folklore.
The most potent development over the past three decades is that the test scores of children from high-income families have increased very rapidly. Before 1980, affluent students had little advantage over middle-class students in academic performance; most of the socioeconomic disparity in academics was between the middle class and the poor. But the rich now outperform the middle class by as much as the middle class outperform the poor. Just as the incomes of the affluent have grown much more rapidly than those of the middle class over the last few decades, so, too, have most of the gains in educational success accrued to the children of the rich.
Before we can figure out what’s happening here, let’s dispel a few myths.
The income gap in academic achievement is not growing because the test scores of poor students are dropping or because our schools are in decline. In fact, average test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the so-called Nation’s Report Card, have been rising — substantially in math and very slowly in reading — since the 1970s. The average 9-year-old today has math skills equal to those her parents had at age 11, a two-year improvement in a single generation. The gains are not as large in reading and they are not as large for older students, but there is no evidence that average test scores have declined over the last three decades for any age or economic group.
The widening income disparity in academic achievement is not a result of widening racial gaps in achievement, either. The achievement gaps between blacks and whites, and Hispanic and non-Hispanic whites have been narrowing slowly over the last two decades, trends that actually keep the yawning gap between higher- and lower-income students from getting even wider. If we look at the test scores of white students only, we find the same growing gap between high- and low-income children as we see in the population as a whole.
It may seem counterintuitive, but schools don’t seem to produce much of the disparity in test scores between high- and low-income students. We know this because children from rich and poor families score very differently on school readiness tests when they enter kindergarten, and this gap grows by less than 10 percent between kindergarten and high school. There is some evidence that achievement gaps between high- and low-income students actually narrow during the nine-month school year, but they widen again in the summer months.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t important differences in quality between schools serving low- and high-income students — there certainly are — but they appear to do less to reinforce the trends than conventional wisdom would have us believe.
If not the usual suspects, what’s going on? It boils down to this: The academic gap is widening because rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students. This difference in preparation persists through elementary and high school.
My research suggests that one part of the explanation for this is rising income inequality. As you may have heard, the incomes of the rich have grown faster over the last 30 years than the incomes of the middle class and the poor. Money helps families provide cognitively stimulating experiences for their young children because it provides more stable home environments, more time for parents to read to their children, access to higher-quality child care and preschool and — in places like New York City, where 4-year-old children take tests to determine entry into gifted and talented programs — access to preschool test preparation tutors or the time to serve as tutors themselves.
But rising income inequality explains, at best, half of the increase in the rich-poor academic achievement gap. It’s not just that the rich have more money than they used to, it’s that they are using it differently. This is where things get really interesting.
High-income families are increasingly focusing their resources — their money, time and knowledge of what it takes to be successful in school — on their children’s cognitive development and educational success. They are doing this because educational success is much more important than it used to be, even for the rich.
With a college degree insufficient to ensure a high-income job, or even a job as a barista, parents are now investing more time and money in their children’s cognitive development from the earliest ages. It may seem self-evident that parents with more resources are able to invest more — more of both money and of what Mr. Putnam calls “‘Goodnight Moon’ time” — in their children’s development. But even though middle-class and poor families are also increasing the time and money they invest in their children, they are not doing so as quickly or as deeply as the rich.
The economists Richard J. Murnane and Greg J. Duncan report that from 1972 to 2006 high-income families increased the amount they spent on enrichment activities for their children by 150 percent, while the spending of low-income families grew by 57 percent over the same time period. Likewise, the amount of time parents spend with their children has grown twice as fast since 1975 among college-educated parents as it has among less-educated parents. The economists Garey Ramey and Valerie A. Ramey of the University of California, San Diego, call this escalation of early childhood investment “the rug rat race,” a phrase that nicely captures the growing perception that early childhood experiences are central to winning a lifelong educational and economic competition.
It’s not clear what we should do about all this. Partly that’s because much of our public conversation about education is focused on the wrong culprits: we blame failing schools and the behavior of the poor for trends that are really the result of deepening income inequality and the behavior of the rich.
We’re also slow to understand what’s happening, I think, because the nature of the problem — a growing educational gap between the rich and the middle class — is unfamiliar. After all, for much of the last 50 years our national conversation about educational inequality has focused almost exclusively on strategies for reducing inequalities between the educational successes of the poor and the middle class, and it has relied on programs aimed at the poor, like Head Start and Title I.
We’ve barely given a thought to what the rich were doing. With the exception of our continuing discussion about whether the rising costs of higher education are pricing the middle class out of college, we don’t have much practice talking about what economists call “upper-tail inequality” in education, much less success at reducing it.
Meanwhile, not only are the children of the rich doing better in school than even the children of the middle class, but the changing economy means that school success is increasingly necessary to future economic success, a worrisome mutual reinforcement of trends that is making our society more socially and economically immobile.
We need to start talking about this. Strangely, the rapid growth in the rich-poor educational gap provides a ray of hope: if the relationship between family income and educational success can change this rapidly, then it is not an immutable, inevitable pattern. What changed once can change again. Policy choices matter more than we have recently been taught to think.
So how can we move toward a society in which educational success is not so strongly linked to family background? Maybe we should take a lesson from the rich and invest much more heavily as a society in our children’s educational opportunities from the day they are born. Investments in early-childhood education pay very high societal dividends. That means investing in developing high-quality child care and preschool that is available to poor and middle-class children. It also means recruiting and training a cadre of skilled preschool teachers and child care providers. These are not new ideas, but we have to stop talking about how expensive and difficult they are to implement and just get on with it.
But we need to do much more than expand and improve preschool and child care. There is a lot of discussion these days about investing in teachers and “improving teacher quality,” but improving the quality of our parenting and of our children’s earliest environments may be even more important. Let’s invest in parents so they can better invest in their children.
This means finding ways of helping parents become better teachers themselves. This might include strategies to support working families so that they can read to their children more often.. It also means expanding programs like the Nurse-Family Partnership that have proved to be effective at helping single parents educate their children; but we also need to pay for research to develop new resources for single parents.
It might also mean greater business and government support for maternity and paternity leave and day care so that the middle class and the poor can get some of the educational benefits that the early academic intervention of the rich provides their children. Fundamentally, it means rethinking our still-persistent notion that educational problems should be solved by schools alone.
The more we do to ensure that all children have similar cognitively stimulating early childhood experiences, the less we will have to worry about failing schools. This in turn will enable us to let our schools focus on teaching the skills — how to solve complex problems, how to think critically and how to collaborate — essential to a growing economy and a lively democracy.
By: Sean F. Reardon, Professor of Education and Sociology, Stanford University; Published in The New York Times, Opinion Pages, April 27, 2013
“Wait, The Sequester Thing Is Still Happening?”: Well-Off People Soon To Finally Be Inconvenienced By Sequestration
This week, the FAA began keeping 10 percent of America’s air-traffic controllers home every day, because of a stupid federal budget argument that turned into a purposefully bad law. Furloughing a bunch of air traffic controllers has a pretty easy-to-predict effect on air travel: It causes delays. Airlines have been sending out automated emails warning travelers to expect as much. The Washington Post yesterday reported on how the first day of furloughs turned out: The New York airports had delays of “one to three hours.” By later in the day, those delays had rippled out to airports in the middle of the country. By late Monday night, LAX was still dealing with delays of more than an hour.
I am guessing that over the next few days a lot of Americans are going to hear about these delays, or be personally inconvenienced by them, and think to themselves, wait, the sequester thing is still happening? Well, yes, it is, because so far it hasn’t been that bad, for certain Americans. Other Americans, though, have been aware of the cuts since they went into effect.
Thus far, many of the people directly affected by sequestration cuts have been the sort of people whose desires and policy preferences are easily ignored by our political institutions. Larry Bartels has shown that politicians are quite responsive to the views of their rich constituents, but not particularly concerned with anyone else. “The views of middle-class constituents matter rather less, while the views of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent effect on their senators’ roll call votes.” Martin Gilens has found basically the same thing.
So far, the sequestration cuts have been particularly hard on people who rely on food pantries and Head Start and Meals on Wheels and unemployment benefits, along with more middle-income government employees and contractors. (And a bunch of scientists, but no one listens to scientists unless they’re building death rays or something.) For rich people, the most inconvenient thing about the sequestration thus far has been trying to figure out why it caused the president to threaten to drone Bob Woodward that one time.
That is going to change, once flights everywhere — but especially out of the Northeast — are suddenly being delayed and canceled all the time, for no good reason. For a really dumb, easily fixable reason, in fact. (And no, we don’t need to “fix” this with a “balance” of cuts and tax hikes, we just need to not do the sequestration. Just repeal it! Super-simple. Then have your idiotic Grand Bargain Budget Showdown.)
“Shuttle flights between Washington and New York were running 60 to 90 minutes late,” the Times reports. Do you know who takes weekday shuttle flights between Washington and New York? People who think they are too important for the train, let alone the bus. People Congress listens to. (People Congress is, also.)
Members of Congress are more likely to fly commercial than attend school on an Indian reservation. Their rich constituents, the only ones they listen to, are more likely to fly often than their constituents who, say, rely on federal housing vouchers.
So Congress may feel a bit more urgency, then, about addressing the sequestration cuts. (Pundits and journalists, too, may start treating them more seriously.) The DCA-LGA shuttle is at risk.
Not that the inconveniencing of the usually convenienced will cause an immediate sensible end to sequestration cuts. The defense cuts were supposed to ensure that right-wingers hated this, and that didn’t work. A lot of people are pretty committed to this weird showdown between the president and House Republicans. And delays and flight cancellations may make a certain type of conservative more committed to mass austerity.
There are certain Simpsony-Bowlesy people who believe quite strongly that the United States will — must — pay for the sin of Debt, by self-imposed austerity or by “becoming Greece.” Plenty of right-wingers already believe a sort of millenarism-via-Drudge in which the United States is already Greece, or some other failed state on the verge of collapse. Mass airport congestion will only nurture that pleasant feeling of inevitable, deserved decline. (This is related to the common elite opinion that mass unemployment is a sign of a country “taking its medicine.”) For some, the worse things get in America, the more evidence it is that we need to make things worse.
So, if your flight gets canceled sometime soon because a bunch of knuckleheads in Congress don’t know how sovereign debt works, just be grateful you’re not a Medicare cancer patient. (Unless you are one, too.)
By: Alex, Pareene, Salon, April 23, 2013
Every Saturday morning, President Obama releases a weekly address, issued over the air and on radio, followed by an official Republican response. Ordinarily, they’re intended to reinforce the parties’ message of the week, or push some new initiative, and they’re not especially newsworthy.
But this week’s GOP address, delivered by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R), struck me as more interesting than most.
National party leaders selected Brownback so that he could tout Kansas’ new tax policies, which Republicans apparently now consider a model for the nation. The governor specifically called his tax agenda an example of “ideas that work.”
“They involve a more focused government that costs less. A taxing structure that encourages growth. An education system that produces measurable results. And a renewed focus on the incredible dignity of each and every person, no matter who they are.”
The next question, of course, is, “Ideas that work for whom?”
Brownback’s initial approach to tax reform was ludicrously regressive — sharply reducing tax rates for the wealthy, while punishing the poor. For his next phase of “tax reform,” the Kansas governor, with the help of a Kansas GOP legislature that’s been purged of moderates, intends to eliminate the state income tax altogether, while making matters even worse for families that are already struggling by raising sales taxes, eliminating the mortgage interest deduction, and scrapping tax credits for things like food and child care.
Remember to keep the larger context in mind: Brownback’s agenda is awful for Kansas, but Republican Party officials at the national level chose the governor to deliver their weekly address, not just because they heartily endorse his tax policies, but because they want to see them implemented elsewhere. Indeed, with a debate over tax reform on the horizon, GOP leaders in Washington are sending a not-so-subtle signal: Brownback’s regressive vision is the kind of plan they have in mind.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, April 8, 2013
On Tuesday, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wisc.) released the House GOP budget, which was greeted with no small amount of incredulity for being almost exactly the same as the economic platform that he and Mitt Romney ran on in 2012 — a platform that was roundly rejected by voters who decided to go with President Obama’s proposals instead. But Ryan, retreating into rhetorical vagueness, claims to see the matter differently. “Are a lot of these solutions very popular, and did we win these arguments in the campaign?” he said. “Some of us think so.”
As has been recounted in depth elsewhere, the Ryan budget would, in all likelihood, lead to massive cuts in aid for the poor, while dramatically reducing tax rates for the wealthy. It’s hard to say with any certainty because, as Dana Milbank at The Washington Post puts it, “There are so many blanks in Ryan’s budget that it could be a Mad Libs exercise.” However, an independent analysis last year of the Ryan-Romney plan, which is similar in structure, showed that the math doesn’t add up without draconian spending cuts and closing tax loopholes for the middle class.
The smart money is that Ryan doesn’t believe his plan has a chance of passing a Democratic-controlled Senate, let alone Obama’s desk. It changes Medicare into a voucher program, strips Medicaid of a guaranteed source of federal funding, and repeals ObamaCare. “In a real way the whole thing is a sop to rank and file conservatives who haven’t come to grips with that reality,” say Brian Beutler at Talking Points Memo.
Indeed, Ryan may have angered the right wing by including the fiscal cliff deal to raise taxes on the wealthy as part of his budget projections. “You wouldn’t know it from the media coverage,” says Joshua Green at Bloomberg Businessweek, “but some conservatives don’t agree that Ryan’s budget is a shockingly right-wing ‘lightning rod’ proposal — they think it’s too liberal. And they’re deeply disillusioned by what they view as Ryan’s breaking faith with the conservative movement.”
But even if Ryan’s budget dies in Congress, the fact of the matter is that it is out there, outlining the Republican Party’s economic and fiscal priorities. “Budgets are statements of values,” writes Jonathan Cohn at The New Republic. “And with this budget, Ryan, once again, has revealed what Republican values are: Cutting taxes, primarily to benefit the wealthy, while savaging programs on which the poorest Americans rely.”
In the end, with Ryan’s budget, it will only be that much harder for the Republican Party to shed its image as the party of the rich, a reform that several conservative commentators have argued is absolutely essential to winning back power. Indeed, the Ryan budget shows that Republican officials are gambling that a makeover on immigration and social issues may be enough to turn the tide — a theory that Democrats will surely be glad to test in the next election.
By: Ryu Spaeth, The Week, March 12, 2013