Growing economic disparity in America is shattering the American Dream, and there’s plenty of data to back the up the assertion. This was the none-too-subtle message that Henry Braun, Ph.D., delivered at the seventh Anastasi Lecture at Fordham Lincoln Center on Oct. 21.
“There really is this hollowing out of the middle class,” said Braun. “What used to be considered working class is now looking very poor. Today, most working people couldn’t find $400 in case of an emergency.”
Braun, the Boisi Professor of Education and Public Policy at Boston College, laid out data illustrating that gross differences in opportunity have “implications for inter-generational mobility, the national economy, civil society, and the democratic polity.”
“More and more, the circumstances of birth cast a long shadow on a child’s life trajectory,” he said, adding that situation could almost be described as “deterministic” with little chance of a child breaking free from his or her economic background.
“The accelerated accumulation of advantage or disadvantage leads to profound differences in opportunities between those born at the top of the ladder and those born at the bottom. When children enter kindergarten, it’s far from a level playing field.”
He said that poor parents’ lack of social capital prevents them from working the system, and puts them at a disadvantage before the child even begins school. Little time can be devoted to literacy activities, affecting even the cumulative number of words the child hears, learns, and repeats. A child on welfare has a recorded vocabulary size of 525 words, whereas a child in professional household has a vocabulary size of 1,116 words. Once the poor child arrives at school, wealthy parents will continue to outspend poorer parents to further their child’s enrichment.
“It’s not just the number of words that matter, but it’s also the quality of the interaction,” said Braun.
Braun detailed the disparate trajectories through data, graphs, and charts. He compared rich and poor students in high school, extra school activities, and on through college. He factored in race and racism, zoning and housing policies, as well as residential and school segregation.
“School segregation is increasing, it’s actually a hyper segregation,” he said.
In the end, he said “like marries like,” with high school graduates marrying high school graduates, college graduates marrying college graduates, thus increasing the rich/poor disparity.
He said that as the nation grows further apart through divergence of wealth—a process he called “self-reinforcing”—only a serious change in the social contract could help alleviate the problem. But partisan bickering at most every level of government won’t allow for it. He said that focusing on the income inequities only exacerbates divisions. Instead, he suggested that advocates for change focus on an “opportunity for all” message, which would be palatable to both conservatives and liberals, and resonate with America’s perception of itself.
Braun said it’s vital for researchers to be able to frame the crisis in narratives that are palatable to the general public and appeal across party lines.
“Finding ways to communicate to the public is something we on the research side don’t do very well, but we must find a way to do it in ways that are not accusatory,” he said.
“Most Americans do believe that this country should be a land of opportunity. This is what brought millions to this country and we’re sadly failing future generations.”
Established in 2008 as part of the activities of the Anastasi Professorship for Psychometrics and Quantitative Psychology, the Anastasi Lectures honor the late Anne Anastasi, Ph.D., former chair of Fordham Psychology Department. The lectures are delivered by leading experts in psychology, educational measurement, industrial and organizational psychology and quantitative methods.