That’s the claim of Matt O’Brien at Washington Post’s Wonkblog, in a post titled (unsurprisingly), “Poor kids who do everything right don’t do better than rich kids who do everything wrong.” His main point:
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 above chart, based on a new paper 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.
So the anger is that some rich dropouts still succeed and make it to the top, and some poor college grads remain on the bottom. Or, to annotate a graph as O’Brien did:
This, however, is a terrible analysis.
First and foremost, it doesn’t live up to his title. Poor kids who do everything right do quite a bit better than rich kids who do “everything” wrong. Only 20% of rich kids who don’t graduate high school make it into the top 40% of income earners. 41% of poor college grads make it into those upper quintiles. Almost 70% of poor college grads make it into the top 60% of income earners. Only 49% of rich HS dropouts do so. The other half of rich high school dropouts end up in the bottom two quintiles, as you’d expect from high school dropouts.
Now, nobody will argue that poor kids don’t have an uphill battle from day 1. And nobody will argue that rich kids have a multitude of advantages in front of them. Their path to success is easier. There are many reasons for this, and I’m not going to go into them here, but suffice to say that I agree with the simple premise that it’s harder to succeed when you start out poor.
But what the graph that O’Brien uses to prove his point is actually proving that putting your nose to the grindstone, pushing yourself to enter and complete college, is important whether you’re rich or you’re poor. If rich HS dropouts were successful at a higher rate than poor college grads, I might agree with this analysis. But they’re not. Poor college grads do measurably better than rich HS dropouts.
Yes, some poor college grads still end up on the bottom, and some rich HS dropouts still succeed. But how many, and why? Compare the above chart with the below (also from the Reeves/Sawhill paper):
Social Mobility Matrix, US Overall
In this chart, you can see that the bottom quintile–60% of them, in fact–stayed in the bottom two quintiles. Only 23% made it to the top two quintiles. And the top quintile–56% of them–remained in the top two quintiles. Only 25% fell to the bottom two quintiles. So overall, completely outside of any educational data whatsoever, the bottom remained on the bottom and the top remained on the top.
But if you’re poor, and you graduate college, you flip the script. Your odds are very good to go from the bottom quintile to middle class or better. And if you’re rich but don’t graduate college, your odds are better that you’re going to end up in lower middle class or worse. It won’t hold true for everyone, as there are strong cultural factors in play. But those cultural factors are not overwhelming. Demography DOES NOT equal destiny.
Imagine that you are in college, and that you have registered for a survey course you think will be particularly interesting. Based on the course description and preliminary syllabus, you conclude that, although your knowledge level is lacking in the course’s field, it seems that the course takes that into account and that you should be fine.
Finally, imagine that you were wrong. You are in over your head. You simply don’t know enough. It’s the stuff of nightmares.
I’m sure that we’ve all been in situations like this at one point or another, whether in college or not. You take on a task for which you feel prepared, or at least able, and then the whole thing turns out to be a non-starter. I happen to have been in the exact situation outlined above. But here’s the scary part: this was a history based government course. I was a junior in the Government Department. And I found my knowledge of history lacking.
It would have been one thing if I were a freshman. Lack of knowledge at that level is expected. During sophomore year it is made fun of. But the third year? That is supposed to be the point in an undergraduate’s career when their hand finally steadies at the helm. The oceans of knowledge are not as threatening, and a course forward can begin to be charted. Instead, I found like fifteen leaks all over the place. And then the ship pitched sideways. Metaphor over.
This particular class, for me, was entitled “The Early Development of American Political Institutions and Organization,” and it was a junior level research seminar in the Government Department of Harvard University. The first day of class, I immediately noticed that I would have to learn a lot of new information to stay abreast of the material and classroom discussion. Before I could even complete the required readings, which were complex overviews and analyses of American history, I had to do swaths of background reading at a much lower level. This was just to give my coursework a context. Imagine trying to think seriously about the development of the Democratic Party (which we had to do), but with little idea of the history of Andrew Jackson or the United States at that particular time (which is what I had). Tough sell, right?
The scary part is that I suspect most of my fellow classmates were caught by surprise just as much as I was. I wasn’t surprised by the difficulty of the course material or the amount of it. I was surprised that I didn’t have the proper antecedent knowledge to engage it at a high level. I’d like to stress here, again, that I was a junior at this time. There was no excuse for this dearth.
This part of the story has an OK ending. I stayed with the class, didn’t speak as much as I normally would, and tore through a lot of extra reading in addition to the classroom materials. I finished with a B. (Despite what some of you may have read about grade inflation, that grade was not an easy task.) I learned a lot about the early history of the United States, but more importantly I learned that my knowledge of history in general was greatly lacking. Even though I had very good knowledge of modern events, history is a subject that is only fully valuable when you have a grand scope. That’s kind of the point of the field.
Fast forward to the second semester of my junior year. Armed with the knowledge that I didn’t know anything (or enough to matter), I decided to start at the Founding, the very beginning. I’m told it’s a very good place to start. I poured through the course catalog in an attempt to find survey courses on American history (American History 101, or something). When I didn’t immediately succeed, my eyes narrowed a little as I stared at my computer screen. After I changed my search terms and tried again, I was still unsuccessful. The best I could find were courses like “”History 13a: The European Enlightenment.” What good are courses like that if one doesn’t know basic European history? At this point I was distressed: I didn’t know history, and there seemed to be no courses to help me. At Harvard. What. The. Hell. In one last attempt, powered by rage at what seemed to me to be a ridiculous oversight, I changed my search parameters and dove back in. Eventually, and to my stunned relief, I found one! It was a course on the American founding, which covered colonial American history on through to the construction of the Constitution. Ironically, the course wasn’t even in the History Department, but the Government Department. It was entitled “Political Thought of the American Founding,” and it was taught by Professor Eric Nelson.
This is the part where my story begins to look up, and the light is visible at the end of the tunnel. Not only had Professor Nelson noticed the lack of a course on the Revolution, but he stepped in to supply the need. In an interview with the The Harvard Gazette, he says:
“A group of undergraduates came to my office hours in 2008 to complain that there was no course at Harvard on the American Revolution. My initial response was: “Look harder!” But it turned out that they were right. This seemed unfortunate to me, not least because my office is about 400 yards away from the spot where Washington mustered the Continental Army in July 1775.”
His course was easily one of my favorites, if not the favorite, of my undergraduate career. It provided a large amount of information and grounded it systemically with essential background knowledge. As a student, I could tell he was passionate about his subject. In fact, he’s written a book about it. After I had completed it, I felt confident in my knowledge of the American Founding, and prepared to tackle the rest of American history. But important questions remain: why was I ever in the position that I was at the beginning of my junior year, and where are all of the history courses like Professor Nelson’s?
NO HISTORY IN OUR COLLEGES
This lack of history may seem unsurprising to some, and it certainly was to me. But it’s not new news. On Wednesday, October 15, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni released its 2014-2015 What Will They Learn? study. The survey gives American liberal arts colleges a grade from A-F, which is determined by the material they require their undergraduates to cover. According to their press release, this material consists “…of seven subjects that are essential to a liberal arts education: literature, composition, economics, math, intermediate level foreign language, science, and American government/history.” Being able to have the opportunity during your school or college years to learn a new language could be more beneficial than what people may first realize it to be. Not only can it encourage you to speak to people from all over the world, but it also opens doors for you to be able to work in another country, and this could be hard to do so if you don’t speak their language. Although, even if you don’t learn it during your education, then you may have the chance to attend a Language School in your area if you wish to improve upon your knowledge and understanding of the subject. But why don’t other materials have the same treatment. Here is the criterion for a satisfactory mark for U.S. Government or History:
“What Will They Learn?TM gives schools credit for U.S. Government or History if they require a survey course in either U.S. government or history with enough chronological and/or topical breadth to expose students to the sweep of American history and institutions. Narrow, niche courses do not count for the requirement, nor do courses that only focus on a limited chronological period or a specific state or region” (page ten of the study).
Not only does Harvard not require a survey course in American history as a condition of a bachelor’s degree (check here for degree requirements), but it doesn’t even have that many. Evidence: the lack of a course on the American Revolution, until just recently. Additionally, many of its courses are “Narrow, niche courses.” This general trend in history was lamented the day after ACTA released its study in an article co-authored by a Harvard professor.
According to ACTA, only 28% of public institutions require American history. This may seem bad, and it is. But it is almost treble the 10% of private institutions that require it. According to the ACTA report, Harvard gets a D across the board, and one of the reasons for this is that it doesn’t require survey courses on American history (see page 63 of the report).
WHY HISTORY IS IMPORTANT FOR LIBERTY
As an advocate for liberty, I’m troubled that history doesn’t seem to be being transmitted to my generation. It’s important for a lot of reasons, and one of them is keeping everybody (read: the State) honest. If one can examine history and pull out trends, one can extrapolate into the future. If the State says that a policy is necessary, one can see if it’s been tried before and to what end. And maybe someone can also remember if we’re at war with Eurasia or Eastasia…I can’t remember.
Here’s an example of the importance of history played out: If historical knowledge were more prevalent, I think it would have produced more comparisons between the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, and maybe enough to have stopped the latter. Both were passed days after a national shock (some more real than others), and granted sweeping and vague powers to the executive. Although the circumstances were not the same, a pause for rational thought was in order both times, especially to contemplate the powers Congress was granting the president. A comparison between the two could have saved the US two long and costly wars, which not only shackled future generations to a mountain of debt, but gave birth to the Patriot Act.
On the other end of the scale, I also had this same need of history in my day to day life as a college student (and, unfortunately, still after). Not only does the State need to be kept honest, but its myths need to be busted. One that I heard and continue to hear from my fellow citizens is that “FDR led us out of the Great Depression with his social welfare programs and is our greatest president!” There are two arguments being made there. One is about the efficacy of state welfare programs (and why we must have them), and the other is about FDR’s legacy. History gives abundant evidence to properly evaluate these facts, but I find that a lot of them are either forgotten or glossed over.
As to the historical (and economic) analyses of his welfare programs, one could begin with Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt. It was provoked by FDR’s New Deal. It itself was based on an essay by Bastiat commenting on a situation almost a century prior in France. These types of programs are not new, but the State always seems to be saying that they are. History can keep them honest. Concerning FDR’s legacy as a good president, I offer this jumping off point: the forced and involuntary internment of Japanese-Americans.
Broadly, a knowledge of American history encourages suspicion toward the State. A lack of historical knowledge leads to a very misplaced trust. Here are some more quick examples before I close:
The government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition (which, by the way, was acknowledged not to work in the most epic form of a Constitutional repeal. Why, then, haven’t we done that for other drugs? History, people.)
The government required discrimination, in the form of Jim Crow.
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. I have offered my personal experience as a case study to show that history is not being taught, or at least not being taught properly, in our nation’s colleges. If one is concerned for the well-being of liberty, one must be concerned for the well-being of history. In its What Will They Learn? study, ACTA says that
“Higher education in a free society also has a civic purpose. Colleges and universities must ensure that students have a working knowledge of the history and governing institutions of their country. An understanding of American history and government is indispensable for the formation of responsible citizens and for the preservation of free institutions” (emphasis added, from page ten of their report).
Colleges need to step up their game, and so do all Americans. I don’t like poison in my alcohol.
The question of class mobility has come to define the “American Dream” in political discourse. And, although this post will take a bit of a contrarian position, it is absolutely inarguable that there is a problem with economic immobility today that is having a very depressing impact on the way we communicate to solve problems and on our freedoms in general. But this is not how you go about making that point.
There are many accepted indicators of whether a person has “done everything right” but the most important such indicators have traditionally included college advancement (graduation and especially graduate degrees), marriage, and home ownership.
The original graphic is a classic example of a complex topic simplified into uselessness. When I look at the graph, I see that, in fact, college grads who started poor move up to the middle classes and stay there at much higher rates than rich kids who drop out of high school (yay!)…but somehow the Post comes away with the misleading headline: Poor kids who do everything right don’t do better than rich kids who do everything wrong.
Really? This only looks at the shear proportions who “graduate college” vs. “drop out of high school” – that can hardly be seen as “doing everything right” vs. “getting everything wrong”. What did the college grads major in? There is ample research supporting the conclusion that most college majors these days are bad long term investments. What did the rich kids who didn’t finish HS go on to do? Were they drop-outs because they had alternative plans? Did they pick up a trade?
And more to the point – how many of those poor kids had good parenting examples at home upon which to build the foundations of healthy marriages?
Slate takes on many of my same talking points here. They mention other confounding factors, and note the misleading nature of the Post’s article title. Props to them!
But they make the unfortunate logical leap that there is something inherently wrong with a system where not all poor college grads do well later in life, or that the forces leading to their remaining in poverty are things we can fix.
The real issue, as O’Brien points out, is that rich kids enjoy lots of advantages that keep them from falling to the very bottom of income distribution, and sometimes those advantages keep them at the very top. They might be able to go to work for family businesses, for instance, or family friends. Researchers like Brookings’ Richard Reeves call that collection of advantages “the glass floor.” Educated poor kids are in the exact opposite position. Many attend second- or third-rate (and possibly for-profit) colleges that churn out less-than-useful degrees. And instead of a floor propping them up, their families and friends can act like an anchor pulling them down. A classic example: a college-educated woman who goes home and marries a boyfriend who never made it past high school and has trouble holding down a job.
Emphasis mine. Notice the not-so-subtle insinuation that colleges that operate for profit are bad for the poor, and that the less-useful degrees are not to be found in the halls of elite, expensive colleges, only those second rate low-end state schools or the aforementioned dirty capitalist institutions. Of course, even top end colleges (including the ivy leagues) are now offering degrees in a wide array of financially useless liberal arts curricula. Also notice the suggestion that the problem isn’t with the failure of people raised in poverty to establish and keep stable families, but that those families are holding them back. They’re getting it exactly backwards. Every credible study on the persistence of poverty finds that single parents and people who suffer divorce are the most likely to get stuck in poverty.
So let’s summarize the position of Slate’s team (and likely that of the Washington Post):
1) Economic mobility continues to be problematic at best for the poorest Americans, even with hard work.
2) Graduating from college is a mark of hard work.
3) Hard work should be rewarded with a high rate of success.
4) If we could separate the poor from the things that hold them back (especially their struggling families and their alternative education sources), they would thrive.
If the writers at Slate would like to address the problem of hard-working, driven poor people being less able to move up the economic ladder than (perhaps) would be ideal, I suggest that they stop grinding political axes and start looking at the hard data. The data all indicates that the leading indicator for economic immobility is single parenthood, and that children of single parents are more likely to also be single parents themselves later in life. Get to the root of the problem and you find that this is not something that government can forcefully correct – and frankly, I’d be terrified if they tried.