One of the more thought-provoking articles I've read recently is Jerry Muller's "Capitalism and Inequality," in Foreign Affairs. The subject: the United States' growing income inequality.
Liberals and conservatives alike will find plenty to dislike in what Muller says, but some of his points are hard to argue with. We're spending enormous amounts of money and energy trying to address the country's growing inequality, he says, and it's not doing much to erase the gap.
In a capitalist country, says Muller, the problem isn't equality of opportunity. In fact, he says, expanding opportunity tends to increase inequality, because some people are able to take advantage of the opportunity better than others. And that, he notes, stems both from our innate human potential – what we're born with – and from how well our family and our community have nurtured that capital.
And, he adds, it's "hard to overstate" the importance of the family: "To use the language of contemporary economics, the family is a workshop in which human capital is produced."
Muller's article covers a wide range of topics, but the one I kept going back to was education: the inequality of academic achievement among US students, what we're doing to address it, and the influence of the family on that achievement.
We've long believed that for the poor, schools offer the best route to a successful future. It's a jolt, then, to come across Muller's contention that rather than helping reduce the achievement gap between children, education is likely increasing it.
It's not that Muller thinks education isn't important. But it is not, he insists, "a panacea."
And so we end up with lots of college students who can't do college-level work, forcing colleges to offer remedial courses. We focus on boosting the achievement of students while they're in high school – even though we know that the problem didn't start there. We focus on elementary school, and on pre-school.
And we come up with reforms: more programs, "school choice," charter schools, "teacher accountability." We argue about standardized testing. And we spend a lot of money.
And not much changes.
It's not that these efforts aren't important. They are. But they don't address the core problem: the "capital," as Muller puts it, that some children start school with and some do not. The most the reform initiatives can do is address the results of that lack of capital. Schools can't work miracles.
Bring up the issue of family influence, and you can be accused of blaming the parents. That avoids dealing with the issue. It's not that inner-city parents don't care about their children's education and their future. But we are experiencing multiple-generational poverty. That is having a real effect, on families, and on neighborhoods, and we can't ignore that fact.
Muller comes close to concluding that there's not much we can do about inequality in education, that we just need to make sure we provide support for those left behind.
In a recent Urban Studies article, Harvard's William Julius Wilson and James M. Quane point down a better path. There are ways for inner-city children to overcome the negative influences of cities' concentrated poverty, they write, and society needs to provide those ways: services for families, for children and adolescents, for ex-prisoners; job training and availability; decent wages....
Locally, individual segments of the larger community try to provide some of those things. But money is tight and likely to get tighter. And as a society, we haven't faced the real problem and its magnitude. It's easier to focus on easy targets like schools and parents, and blame them.
Muller offers a reminder that schools cannot do the job we're expecting them to do. We can blame parents if we like, but they can't do the job themselves, either.
And the longer we avoid dealing with the roots of our education inequality, the worse it will get.
Americans may think that schools can eliminate the achievement gap among children. But maybe it's just making the gap worse.