Education and the Rich-Poor Divide

A number of people have brought this paper or one of the several articles about it, for example, this one at The Atlantic on education and the growing divide between rich and poor to my attention.

From the paper:

As the income gap between high- and low-income families has widened, has the achievement gap between children in high- and low-income families also widened?

The answer, in brief, is yes. The achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 30 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born twenty-five years earlier.

From the article:

The children of the wealthy are pulling away from their lower-class peers — the same way their parents are pulling away from their peers’ parents. When it comes to college completion rates, the rich-poor gulf has grown by 50% since the 1980s. Upper income families are also spending vastly more on their children compared to the poor than they did 40 years ago, and spending more time as parents cultivating their intellectual development.

It may not simply be a matter of the rich getting richer, and the poor getting poorer — although that certainly is a part of it. The growing differences in student achievement don’t strictly mimic the way income inequality has skyrocketed since the middle of the 20th century. It’s actually worse than that. Today, there’s a much stronger connection between income and a child’s academic success than in the past. Having money is simply more important than it used to be when it comes to getting a good education. Or, as Reardon puts it, “a dollar of income…appears to buy more academic achievement than it did several decades a ago.”

Even more discouraging: The differences start early in a child’s life, then linger. Reardon notes another study which found that the rich-poor achievement gap between students is already big when they start kindergarden, and doesn’t change much over time. His own analysis shows a similar pattern.

The study (and the articles derived from it) appear to be a sort of Rorschach test. People draw the conclusions from it that best support their views. So, for example, those who believe that the naturally talented are garnering higher incomes and, not surprisingly, have greater academic achievement see that in the study.

From my vantage point the study is mostly a teaser for the author’s book which I strongly suspect I will never read and, consequently, not particularly helpful or interesting. I can’t actually tell from the paper itself but he does not appear to control for some things that I would think to be significant. So, for example, he doesn’t appear to control either for command of the English language or for certain areas in which there has been extraordinary income growth over the last forty years and require high levels of academic achievement. Speaking English is closely correlated both to income and academic achievement. Physicians need to do better in school than more than half of the population and they have high incomes. Their incomes have growth so rapidly over the last 40 years and there are enough of them that it must certainly skew all sorts of findings.

Is the paper just another way of saying that we’ve had a high rate of immigration over the last several decades and physicians have high incomes?

3 comments… add one
  • steve Link

    I thought the most interesting part was this.

    “Second, as Greg Duncan and Katherine Magnuson note in chapter 3 of this volume, the income achievement gap is large when children enter kindergarten and does not appear to grow (or narrow) appreciably as children progress through school.”

    “Their incomes have growth so rapidly over the last 40 years and there are enough of them that it must certainly skew all sorts of findings.”

    About 600,000-700,000 docs in the US. US population roughly 300 million (rounding off a lot). I find it very unlikely docs (0.2% of the population) are having enough kids to skew test scores. Maybe on the income side.

    “This expense increase can be seen explicitly by look- ing at physicians’ salaries. In 1940, in inflation-adjusted 2004 dollars, the mean income for American physicians was about $50,000, or a little over 6 times U.S. per capi- ta GNP. By 1950 this had increased to about $100,000, or 6.5 times U.S. per capita GNP. By 1960, physicians’ mean net income had increased to $150,000, or 8 times U.S. per capita GNP, and by 1970 to $200,000, or somewhat over 8.5 times U.S. per capita GNP.6 In the 1960s there was much more demand for physician serv- ices thanks to Medicare and Medicaid, but little change in the number of physicians, and doctors no longer needed to worry as much about charity cases—the gov- ernment would pick up the tab.
    With this massive increase in physician incomes, many more Americans chose to attend medical school. The number of physicians in the United States increased from about 1.5 per 1,000 in both 1950 and 1960 to 1.7 in 1970 to about 2.5 in 1995.7 Physicians’ salaries con- tinued to increase in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, but not nearly at the same rate as in the 1960s.Today physicians’ salaries are around $205,700 which is only about 6.0 times the U.S. per capita GNP.8 ”

    Yes, we are overpaid, but the really rapid growth was prior to this study.


  • The reason I point to physicians is not how their numbers relate to the overall population but how those numbers relate to the numbers of the rich. I’ve published that before here—obviously, it’s considerably higher than 2%.

    I think they’re a special case that should be disaggregated from the totals.

  • michael reynolds Link

    From my vantage point the study is mostly a teaser for the author’s book

    You say that like it’s a bad thing.

    By the way: nanotechnology. How cool is that stuff?

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