The First Unitarian Church of Omaha, to which I belong, has formed a sister church relationship with a predominantly black church in north Omaha, Clair Memorial Methodist Church. On Saturday we held a joint workshop, “Confronting Racism” at Clair. Several people said that we should “celebrate diversity, transcend race, and hope that things will be better in twenty or thirty years from now.”
I think the problem is much more fundamental and difficult than this. First of all, there are two main reasons why racism is so prevalent in America, one obvious and one perhaps less obvious:
The obvious reason is the very different colors of our skin.
The other reason, equally important, is that there are huge socio-economic differences between the two races. Whites are, by and large, better educated and more affluent than blacks. They also have a more stable family structure, with far fewer single parent families. People tend to live in homogeneous residential areas and associate with others of similar socio-economic background. All of these social factors serve to separate the races into largely non-interacting groups of people.
How do we confront and attack such deeply entrenched racism in our society? We need an approach which is more fundamental than programs like “welfare to work” or “residential integration.” Even equalizing educational opportunity is not enough. What we need is a long term effort to improve educational outcomes for blacks and other children from low-income families. As the above chart of Nebraska data shows, children from low-income families, who thus receive free or reduced price lunch (FRL), are already behind in reading proficiency by third grade and they just keep falling further and further behind in the later grades. This means that they need major intervention before they even get to kindergarten. In fact what they need is early childhood education, beginning no later than age 3. Conclusion: Racism is deeply embedded in American life and can only be eliminated with a long term fundamental effort to greatly improve educational outcomes for blacks. I will discuss proof that this can be done in my next post.
In two recent posts, here and here, I have established that:
Rapid increases in federal student aid in recent years have led to tuition increases at both public and private educational institutions and for both undergraduate and graduate students.
American higher education is increasing the divide between the haves and the have-nots in the sense that college degree attainment is increasing much faster for those students from higher income families.
Furthermore, students at private, nonprofit (most prestigious) institutions have higher graduation rates and lower debt levels compared to students from public institutions who, in turn, have both higher graduation rates and lower debt levels than students at for-profit colleges (least prestigious).
As if this isn’t bad enough, it gets even worse! The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis has just reported, “Why Didn’t Higher Education Protect Hispanic and Black Wealth?” that “White and Asian college grads do much better than their counterparts without college, while college-grad Hispanics and blacks do much worse proportionately.” (see above chart).
In short, the federal government is spending more and more money on higher education, which, in turn, is making colleges and universities more and more expensive. Whites and Asians from higher-income families are graduating in much higher numbers and with minimal debt, while college-grad blacks and Hispanics are mired in huge levels of debt.
How should society address this severe inequality in higher education?
Federal student loans should be limited to $30,000 for undergraduates and $60,000 for graduate students, the average amounts borrowed today for each category of student. Beyond these limits, students could still borrow from the private market, but with no subsidies or loan guarantees provided by the government. This single action alone will help to hold down college costs.
All students, and especially those from low-income families, should be encouraged to avoid excessive college debt. There are many high quality, low-cost educational institutions all around the country (e.g. UNOmaha where I teach) to meet their needs. It should be strongly emphasized that an expensive, prestigious institution is not needed to obtain a good education.
A recent column by David Brooks in the New York Times, “Minimum Wage Muddle,” is a good summary of the pros and cons of raising the minimum wage for the whole country. Mr. Brooks refers to a recent Congressional Budget Office report that a hike in the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour might lift 900,000 out of poverty but would also likely mean a loss of 500,000 jobs. As suggested in a recent post, one of the things we could do to get beyond our political dysfunction at the national level is to:
Put a greater emphasis on state-centered federalism both to encourage experimentation and innovation in the American system and to remove issues from the national agenda which contribute to division, stalemate and endless controversy. Considering that income inequality varies so greatly from one part of the country to another, (see above), it makes a lot of sense to federalize the minimum wage issue. In other words, let cities and states set their own minimum wage levels based on their own local circumstances.
For example, the state of Nebraska, with very little inequality and where I live, has just raised its minimum wage to $8/hour ($9/hour beginning January 2016). Nebraska’s lowest in the country unemployment rate of 2.6% means that hardly anyone will lose their job.
As Mr. Brooks says, “Raising the minimum wage will produce winners among job holders from all backgrounds, but it will disproportionately punish those with the lowest skills, who are least likely to be able to justify higher employment costs.” Conclusion: raising the national minimum wage is not the best way to address the inequality and fairness issue. A better way is to create more jobs by boosting the economy overall. Then help low wage workers take home more money with a (perhaps expanded) Earned Income Tax Credit. Cities and states can establish their own individual minimum wages however they wish.
Nebraska is a progressive state in many respects. Last fall we raised our state minimum wage. The Nebraska Legislature is now on the verge of eliminating the death penalty. Seven years ago the Legislature established the Learning Community in metro Omaha, whose purpose is to eliminate the academic achievement gap between children from the middle class and those living in low-income families. I am an elected member of the Learning Community Coordinating Council which oversees the work of the LC. As such I give a lot of thought to the plight of the low-income black community in north Omaha. My own answer to the question in the title is yes, of course, there is more we can do but it needs to be carefully directed. I have written several previous posts on this topic. Here and here.
For example, the Hamilton Project has an excellent program, ”Policies to Address Poverty in America,” which calls for a highly focused effort along the lines of:
Promoting Early Childhood Development
Supporting Disadvantaged Youth
Improving the Safety Net and Work Support
Mr. Robert Balfanz, the Director of the Everyone Graduates Center at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, suggests focusing on the toughest 660 out of 12,600 high schools in the U.S. which fully one-half of non-graduating students attend. More specifically:
Refocus these high poverty high schools in order to identify by the middle of the ninth grade the students most likely to drop out.
Set up early warning systems so that adults can step in at the first sign that a student is in trouble.
Employ additional adults to support students who need daily nagging to succeed, especially during the key transitional years in the sixth and ninth grades.
These two programs have lots of similarities and are focused on at-risk inner-city youth. Massive black underachievement is a huge social problem, and ultimately a huge drain on our entire economy as well. More than just good intentions are necessary for effective intervention. An intelligent and focused approach as described here would be a good way to proceed.
The death of another black man at the hands of the police, this time Freddie Gray of Baltimore, has again set off a national debate about poverty, inequality and racial injustice. The Washington Post journalist Marc Thiessen wrote about this several days ago in, “The Baltimore Democrats Built,” saying that:
City officials injected $130 million into the Sandtown-Winchester community (where the riots took place) in a failed effort to transform it.
The poverty rate in Baltimore is 24% compared with 14.5% nationally.
The unemployment rate for black men in Baltimore between the ages of 20 – 24 is 37%.
Among the nation’s 100 largest counties, the one where children face the worst odds of escaping poverty is the city of Baltimore.
In 2014, Baltimore public schools ranked third in the country in per-pupil spending, yet 55% of Baltimore fourth graders scored below basic in reading.
In the Sandtown-Winchester community, nearly half of all high school students missed at least 20 days of school in 2011.
This community’s murder rate is double the average for Baltimore, which in turn had the fifth highest murder rate last year among major U.S. cities.
In other words, Baltimore’s problems cannot be blamed on racial prejudice or on a lack of resources to combat poverty and low educational performance. Clearly needed are better schools and more employment opportunities. Better state and local leadership would help in this respect. But what is most needed is faster economic growth for the whole country. There are many things which could be done to accomplish this. It’s a shame that our current political system is too fractured to allow this to happen.
Income inequality in the U.S. is a major problem, getting worse all the time. There are many reasons why this is happening and many suggestions for how to deal with it. On the other hand, it is well appreciated that a college degree is one of the best tickets for upward mobility into the middle class. A new book by Suzanne Mettler, “Degrees of Inequality,” shows how American higher education is actually increasing the divide between the haves and have-nots. She points out that:
There are too few college graduates in the U.S. In 2010 Americans between ages 25 and 34 had a college graduation rate of 33%. At least 10 OECD nations have higher rates (see below). American world leadership in the future will be jeopardized if we don’t continue to be an educational leader as we have been in the past.
America is graduating inequality. College degree attainment has increased between 1970 and 2011 for all income groups. However this is happening much more quickly for higher income groups. 83% of 18 to 24 year olds now have a high school diploma and 75% of this group start college. But the completion rate by age 24 is only 47%, mostly from the higher income groups (see below).
Not all college degrees are created equal. Students at private, nonprofit institutions graduate at higher rates than students from public institutions who, in turn, graduate at much higher rates than students from for-profit institutions. And graduates of the for-profits have larger loan debt than for graduates from private nonprofit and public institutions.
Students at for-profit educational institutions tend to be from lower-income families. As noted, they have lower graduation rates and end up with higher debt levels. Clearly the three tier system of American higher education has a harmful effect on the young adults who need the most help in moving up the economic ladder.
How should society address this major problem in an era of tight public spending? One answer is to increase regulation of the government-run student loan program. All educational institutions should be held at least partially responsible for the defaulted loans of their former students.
Another approach is to increase financial support for community colleges so that they can provide more programs for the low-income students who are most likely to attend them.