Research & Commentary: Diverging Education Opportunities

Published August 6, 2012

Recent research demonstrates a growing divide among America’s wealthier and poorer households. The groups used to diverge mainly on income, with poorer people routinely moving up the ladder throughout their lives and their children’s lives, but in recent decades the two have begun to differ also by habits of personal behavior. As a result, wealthy families are more likely to stay wealthy and poor families stay poor. Studies show the nation’s education system is contributing to this trend.

Some activists blame the meritocratic society and capitalist system, arguing the wealthy use their power to suppress competition from other people of merit. Growing gaps among different groups in education attainment and, therefore, wealth, they say, necessitate greater wealth redistribution by government taking money from those who earned it and giving it to those who have been prevented from earning it.

Proponents of individual liberty and markets point out that growing gaps between rich and poor can be attributed in great part to better choices by people who become wealthy: They get and stay married, work hard and long, attend church, and avoid crime. The nation’s past half-century of major wealth redistribution and social policies have encouraged poor people to avoid the very behaviors that would propel them into the ranks of middle income, by shielding them from the consequences of bad decisions such as not completing high school, bearing children before marriage, not working, and not saving.

These growing gaps also can be attributed to differences in education quality for wealthy and poor people. Wealthy people can afford to pay higher taxes for better public schools or to pay both taxes and private school tuition. The poor cannot. They are thus slated into some of the country’s worst public schools, with no way out. Other status quo public education practices also disproportionately hurt the poor and minorities, such as the lack of rigorous, coherent curriculum; seniority-based teacher pay schedules and ‘last in, first out’ retention policies; and failures to curb destructive student behavior in the schools.

Those who want to close the wealth gap must work to close the education gap by offering school choice to all families.

The following documents offer more information about the gap in education opportunities between classes in the United States.


Two Classes, Divided by ‘I Do’
Forty percent of wealth inequality in the United States is explained by differences in marriage: Rich people marry before having children, whereas poor people either never marry and have children anyway or divorce after having children, reports the New York Times. Married parents have the advantages of combining salaries and attention to spend on their families, and far less often have to spend large chunks of income on childcare. Children of broken homes, on average, perform far worse in school and engage in far fewer outside-school activities and relationships.

The Mobility Dilemma: Have We Lost Faith in the Power of Knowledge?
Little of the recent discussion about slowing income mobility in the United States has raised education as a possible reason for it, writes Peter Meyer for Education Next. But poor students who do so poorly on academic measures invariably attend the country’s worst schools. Schools matter in closing this gap because they can offer students the knowledge they need to achieve despite their material conditions.

Why Our Elites Stink
Are the nation’s wealth and intellectual elite are too entrenched to let newcomers arrive from lower income groups? Does a meritocracy inevitably lead to insuperable inequality and dysfunction? Writing in the New York Times, David Brooks says certainly not. Today’s meritocratic elites achieve and preserve their status not mainly by being corrupt but instead by being ambitious and disciplined, he writes. The problem is not that we have elites, but that they are barred by political correctness from acknowledging their high status, which would lead them to use their positions to serve others, as they have in the past.

The New American Divide
The United States faces an increasing cultural inequality that is causing its increasing wealth inequality, writes Charles Murray in the Wall Street Journal. Poverty doesn’t define the lower class so much as withdrawal from the core American institutions of hard work, marriage, honesty, and religiosity. The elite who run the country and its cultural institutions now are generations and ZIP codes removed from average people, and therefore have no idea how most U.S. residents live and think. The government jumpstarted this divide by shielding people from the natural consequences of unwed motherhood, not working, and committing crimes, and by intruding in problems that people and their neighbors used to resolve on their own. The answer, he says, is for individuals to realize these are problems and take it upon themselves to fix them.

The Opportunity Gap
Growing amounts of research indicate children of the more affluent and less affluent are raised in starkly different ways and thus have vastly different opportunities, writes David Brooks in the New York Times. Poorer children, who likely live in single-parent households, receive far less attention and household expenditures than other children. They also have worse test scores, participate less in afterschool activities, and exhibit worse behaviors. It is time, he says, for politicians to address this problem.

Belmont & Fishtown
America’s once-common civic culture, the basis of our society, has begun an unprecedented divergence, writes Charles Murray in The New Criterion. American exceptionalism and its opportunity society are deteriorating in tandem with this development, he writes. The classes now diverge, not on just wealth but also on core behaviors and morality: marriage rates, industriousness, honesty (as measured by crime rates), and religiosity. As the culture among the lower class unravels further, it will bring devastating social and economic consequences.

Can Schools Spur Social Mobility?
Can excellent schools staffed by dedicated educators actually help poor kids climb out of poverty and compete with their affluent peers? Michael Petrilli asks that question in a blog post for the Fordham Institute. Now that genetic academic ability is no longer more evenly distributed throughout the population, it is likely that the rich and smart will stay successful and the poor will remain poor and unsuccessful for generations. Petrilli suggests two options for schools: get better at identifying and launching smart poor kids, and think of success in terms beyond getting into elite colleges and more like having a satisfying middle-income job and contributing to your family and neighborhood.

Pursuing the American Dream: Economic Mobility Across Generations
Eighty-four percent of Americans have higher incomes now than their parents did at the same age, according to this report from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Ninety-three percent of Americans in the bottom quintile of family wealth earn more today than their parents did at the same age. It is more likely for those at the top to stay near it over generations, and more likely for those at the bottom to stay near it over generations. Black Americans are far more likely than whites to stay stuck at the bottom or experience a reduction in family income.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].