Observations on life

A different take on fixing “inequality.”

Raise the bottom; lower the top? I’m not sure why we should have a goal of equality, but apparently the left has decided that inequality is the topic of the century. The popular approach seems to be take from the successful and in any number of ways throw the money at those who have less. Old Bernie sees a blank, free check for college as part of the solution as if a college degree was a free pass to success.

Nevertheless, we must do something to assure that every American has a fair chance to achieve his/her full potential. Here is a different take on the problem; help vulnerable children get a better chance. In other words, address the root cause of the problem. As usual, it appears this problem is self-inflicted to some extent.

As with most social initiatives, this one has critics; teachers don’t want to be measured against test results and moving poor children and their families into better neighborhoods is a political third rail.

CAM­BRIDGE, Mass.— In a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign where can­di­dates from both par­ties are blam­ing glob­al­iza­tion for a shrinking mid­dle class, a 36-year-old In­dia-born economist has a dif­fer­ent expla­na­tion: Bad neigh­borhoods and bad teach­ers rob poor chil­dren of the chance to climb into the mid­dle class.

His so­lu­tion? Help the chil­dren and their fam­i­lies move to bet­ter neigh­borhoods.

High-mo­bil­ity metro areas have a com­bi­na­tion of greater eco­nomic and racial in­te­gra­tion, bet­ter schools and a smaller frac­tion of sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­lies than lower mobility  ar­eas. In­te­gra­tion is lag­ging in At­lanta, he said. “The strong­est predic­tors of up­ward mo­bil­ity are mea­sures of family struc­ture,” Mr. Chetty said.

Economist’s Take on Inequality Has Appeal on Both Sides of the Aisle



Categories: Observations on life

4 replies »

  1. Wanted to point out an article in today’s WSJ – a book review of “The Health Gap”, written by Dr. Michael Marmot titled The Hierarchy of Human Life, by William Bynum.

    In a 1970s Whitelall Study (epidemiological survey), Dr. Marmot (with others) confirmed that those under the most stress (those with greatest responsibility) did not suffer the highest incidence of heart disease and other conditions associated with stress.

    In recent years, Dr. Marmot has continued to study “gaps” in health outcomes – why there are significant differences in mortality and morbidity between different countries and within different groups in the same country. He asserts: “medicine [is] failed prevention” and that empowerment and autonomy are vital components of good health. He notes that health gaps—they are in fact better thought of as gradients—can be found in countries rich, poor and in between. They can be found in the same city. In Baltimore, for instance, life expectancy at birth is 63 in the deprived Upton/Druid Heights area and 83 in salubrious Roland Park/Poplar. In the former, a third of residents between the ages of 10 and 17 are arrested each year for a juvenile disorder. The figure in Roland Park is one in 50. Though crime does not cause ill health or vice versa, Dr. Marmot writes, “they have common causes.” That Upton is largely black and Roland Park largely white is irrelevant, Dr. Marmot insists; similar differentials can be found among largely white populations within Glasgow.

    These roots lie primarily in what Dr. Marmot identifies as the social determinants of health (SDH). These are not simply economic, although of course poverty is associated with bad health—a link established in the 19th century by Edwin Chadwick in Britain and Lemuel Shattuck in the U.S. But “poverty is not destiny,” Dr. Marmot insists. Rather, he seeks to develop a model of SDH that is intrinsically linked with human autonomy and control. Prosperity brings all sorts of empowerments, just as poverty denies them. It is the empowerment rather than the absolute poverty that he believes is most crucial. Dr. Marmot shows movingly that unfortunate circumstances of life start early, thanks to bad parenting or deprivation and destitution. Whether parents fail their children because they are addicted to drugs, simply lazy or overwhelmed by their lives makes little difference to the outcome. The consequences of these constraints are cumulative, from the womb to the grave. Problems continue through the school years, with likely brushes with the law, bad school performance and little hope. The chances of securing meaningful employment are significantly reduced, and the cycle starts over.

    For Dr. Marmot, the solutions lie in policies that encourage universal prosperity, not through trickle-down effects but through mutual aid, self-reliance and autonomy at the local level. These freedoms, when they are achieved, can translate into better health and longer lives. When they are not, the cumulative effects lead to an early grave, at least statistically speaking.

    Dr. Marmot pays particular attention to the Finnish educational system, which is based “not on managerial control of teachers but on both teachers and students taking responsibility.” “Good education produces better health” is his refrain. One commenter noted that “Education does offer a major pathway in this direction, perhaps the best, especially since the poor’s main resource is their ability to work and think.” Indeed, educating women everywhere is probably the single most important thing that could be done for the world. Not only does it improve women’s health and that of their families, it decreases average family size, thus addressing the thorny issue of population increase.

    Education is central to Dr. Marmot’s agenda but only one of a group of initiatives that he argues humanely and persuasively could lead to a healthier tomorrow – what we benefits weenies sometimes call “Health to Wealth to Health”.


  2. Dick, thank you for this post.

    Some say mobility has stagnated. Some blame global competition. Others argue the middle class is under duress from all of the new immigrants, legal and undocumented – I believe data show we have the highest percentage of foreign born inthe population in the past 100 years.

    As the son of immigrants, and as the spouse of a grade school teacher, I have observed in the past that mobility,and “achieving the American Dream”, to have a higher standard of living than your parents is all about the actions of the parents.

    So, I can confirm that while Professor Chetty’s prescriptions may work well for the few distressed families that we can afford to reach, the only option to achieve mobility on a widespread basis involves parental sacrifice – making decisions, doing solely those things that benefit the child … Always, always thinking of the child first.

    I can also confirm that teachers who encounter such families have no fears concerning being measured by test results – when all, teachers, parents, children have the focus solely on learning, growing.


    • I agree with you. My daughter is a teacher and the stories she tells about parents is amazing. My favorite is about the parent called in to talk about her child’s performance. In front of the child she said “I don’t have time for this, I have problems of my own going to school.”


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