Who is driving inequality in America? You are. I am. We are.
Did you read to your kids before bed when they were young? If you did, you gave them an advantage over kids whose parents were working the evening shift at 7-Eleven. Did you spend extra on tutoring or music lessons? Since 1996, affluent families have spent almost 300% more educating their young while everybody else’s spending has been mostly flat.
Did you marry before having kids and raise your kids in a two-parent home? The children of the well educated are now much more likely to grow up in stable families, and those differences in family structure explain 32% of the growth of family income inequality since 1979.
If you did these things, you did nothing wrong. You invested in your children’s flourishing as any decent parent would.
But here’s the situation: The information economy rains money on highly trained professionals: doctors, lawyers, corporate managers, engineers and so on.
Daniel Markovits, author of “The Meritocracy Trap,” estimates there are about 1 million of these workers in America today. They work really hard, are really productive and earn a lot more. In the mid-1960s, profits per partner at elite law firms were less than five times a secretary’s salary. Now, Markovits notes, they are more than 40 times.
These professionals invest heavily in their children’s education. By eighth grade, students from affluent families are four grade levels ahead of students from poor families. Seventy-two percent of students at the 150 most competitive colleges come from the richest quarter of families, and only 3% come from the poorest.
Inherited inequality is bad enough. But it’s the geographic concentration that is really turning America into a caste society. Affluent people used to be spread around: owning the local bank or factory, sending their kids to the local schools.
Now those of us in the top 20% of earners are concentrated in talent-rich zones around New York, D.C., the Bay Area, etc. The already advantaged build rich communities and multiply one another’s advantages even more. It takes a village to raise a Stanford grad.
You don’t have to drive very far outside these top 20% communities to find yourself in a different universe. In February, I drove from Manhattan Beach, California, to Watts in South Central LA and Compton, where I spent a few days interviewing residents.
People in Compton and Watts — almost exclusively Latino and black — talked about all the things that have been stripped away from their communities: good schools, public amenities, school choirs, music festivals. Fear was a constant subject of conversation. Most of the people I spoke with had lost a family member to gun violence.
People spoke about intense levels of social distrust; the locals had been betrayed again and again by outsiders and now are very skeptical of people promising to make improvements. They talked about trauma. “There are Compton riots on the inside now,” one resident told me.
I chose to go to Compton and Watts for a specific reason, which offers a way forward. Harvard economist Raj Chetty recently led a study that showed that though these two neighborhoods are demographically similar and only 2.3 miles apart, 44% of the black men who grew up in Watts were incarcerated on April 1, 2010, compared with only 6.2% of the black men who grew up in families with similar incomes in Central Compton. Similarly, social mobility was much lower in Watts than in Compton.
Why are some neighborhoods, including some in Compton, able to give their kids better chances in life despite so many disadvantages? Chetty points to several factors: better schools, more fathers present in the neighborhoods and more cohesive community organizations.
I found all those things in my reporting in Compton — and something else. Watts is part of Los Angeles. Compton is its own city with its own mayor. I met a lot of great people in Watts, but Compton has more civic infrastructure — community groups and locally controlled government agencies. Compton has a lot of homegrown civic reformers, like Rafer Owens, who is a deputy Los Angeles County sheriff and pastor at a Baptist church. There’s also a mentality: We have faith in our ability to take care of ourselves; only people in the neighborhood really know what’s going on.
Some people who talk about inequality focus on the top 1%, and if you want to go after the hedge fund billionaires, feel free. But as inequality is actually lived out, it’s the 20/80 gap that is most glaring and most unjust.
But we can reduce the opportunity gap if we follow the lessons of Compton: First, the neighborhood is the unit of change. Social mobility rises village by village. Second, the people in the community have to be in charge. They need resources from outside, but only local control does the trick. Third, spending money on preschool, apprenticeship and other human capital programs really works.
The top 20% is not going to stop spending heavily on their kids. We have to give the bottom 80% the resources to do the same.
David Brooks is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.