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Thursday, June 20, 2013

Upward Mobility And Why It Happens Less

George Will (Washington Post 6.20.13) has written an excellent, well-documented article on upward mobility, and why the forces that have propelled Americans from poverty to wealth in the past are no longer as powerful. Families which have always been the central to providing the education, skills, attitudes, and discipline required to be successful in American society are failing in their responsibilities.  It is too late once children get to school, for if such fundamental and comprehensive preparation of children is not undertaken during their formative years, it is too late. 

Jerry Z. Muller of Catholic University has noted that “formal schooling itself plays a relatively minor role in creating or perpetuating achievement gaps” that originate “in the different levels of human capital children possess when they enter school.”

In “The Constitution of Liberty” (1960), Friedrich Hayek noted that families are the primary transmitters of human capital — habits, mores, education. Hence families, much more than other social institutions or programs, are determinative of academic and vocational success. In “The Unheavenly City” (1970), Edward C. Banfield wrote: “All education favors the middle- and upper-class child, because to be middle or upper class is to have qualities that make one particularly educable.”

One of the reasons that the children of white and Asian families in America perform better than black students is because of the emphasis put on learning, moral rectitude, and success.  Money is not the issue, and lower-income Chinese families – like their Jewish counterparts on the Lower East Side 100 years ago – insist on learning and the mastery of majority norms, behavior and practices.  The enrollment at Stuyvesant High School in New York City is as overwhelmingly Asian as it used to be Jewish – children of families without the financial resources to send their children to equally demanding private schools but who have raised them for academic success. There is no mystery in why Asian students today perform so well in an academic environment.  Not only are their scores better, but absenteeism, drop-out rates, suspensions, and dismissals are almost non-existent.

White families engage their children both socially and intellectually from infancy, and teach them how to think critically and conceptually.  A toddler can be made to understand that a ‘hole’ can be a cutout in a piece of paper, an excavation for a 20-story building; or a moth hole in a sweater.  She can begin to acquire the skills to determine fact from fiction, truth from lies. Kindergarteners can learn the strategic thinking of chess.  Third graders can understand phylogeny and why owls and hawks, although similar in behavior have distinctly different origins. 

The Cato Institute’s Brink Lindsey argued in “Human Capitalism: How Economic Growth Has Made Us Smarter — and More Unequal” that this growth intensifies society’s complexity, which “has opened a great divide between those who have mastered its requirements and those who haven’t.” Modernity — education-based complexity — intensifies the demands on mental abilities. People invest increasingly in human capital — especially education — because status and achievement increasingly depend on possession of the right knowledge.

Lindsey cited research showing that “by the time they reach age 3, children of professional parents have heard some 45 million words addressed to them — as opposed to only 26 million words for working-class kids, and a mere 13 million words in the case of kids on welfare.” So, class distinctions in vocabularies are already large among toddlers.

It is no surprise then, that top universities have disproportionate numbers of Asian students and fewer numbers of black and Latino students.

America is divided yet again, this time not by race, ethnicity, or income; but by family character.  Asians and middle-class whites have traditionally had highly structured family units – two-parent families, close extended families, and a strong ethical and moral core – and have invested in the ‘human capital’ of their children often at the expense of adults. Children of these families tend to marry those of like-minded families, thus consolidating the gains of this successful group.

So what of the rest of America – the lower-class whites, Latinos, and inner-city blacks all of whom lag behind in academic and social achievement?  How can these populations take advantage of the geometrically expanding opportunities in what is become a knowledge-based economy?

History has shown that public investment has done little good.  If anything, despite billions of tax dollars and per capita expenditures of over $10,000 per student in large metropolitan areas like Washington and Los Angeles, public school performance has gone down.  Touted programs like Head Start often have a positive impact on early learning, but these gains are lost as children re-enter the often dysfunctional families and communities from which they come.  Job training programs cannot keep up with the rapid pace of technological innovation and the structural changes occurring in the economy. Welfare, food stamps, public housing and other social investments are safety-net provisions designed to help people survive, not thrive.

In many inner-city communities the cultures of entitlement and victimhood persist, aided and abetted by white ‘progressives’. Until community leaders reject ‘The Street’ as a legitimate cultural expression, reject the cover of ‘persistent racism’ as a justification for failure, and refuse patronizing and ineffective public expenditures, there will be no improvement in social and economic mobility.

A growing segment of white America, says Charles Murray, is at similar risk. The white working class population is becoming as characterized by family and social dysfunction as their black counterparts.

Using a statistical construct he calls Fishtown — inspired by an actual white, blue-collar neighborhood of the same name in Philadelphia — Murray sorts through demographic data to present a startling picture. Women in Fishtown now routinely have children outside of marriage. Less than a third of its children grow up in households that include both biological parents. The men claim physical disability at astounding rates and are less likely to hold down jobs than in the past. Churchgoing among the white working class has declined, eroding the social capital that organized religion once provided. (Nicholas Confessore, New York Times 2.10.12)

Of all American social groups, it may yet be the Latinos who learn how to take advantage of the new economy. Immigrants – especially those who have taken great risks to come to America (e.g. Central Americans during that regions civil wars) – have a great desire to succeed, and are very little different from the European immigrants who fled persecution, poverty, and social injustice in the past.  They want to become Americans and are willing to give up insular concepts of ‘diversity’ to join the mainstream.

In any case, Will and those observers like him are right in identifying the family as the core element of the new, entrepreneurial, small-government country we now live in.  Although the concept of family is changing along with everything else, the need for the same values that have characterized the best of civilization since the Greeks, has not diminished.

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