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Income Inequality Impacts Education

For the Heights

Published: Sunday, November 4, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01


Alex Gaynor / Heights Staff

Boston College played host to the annual Mass Humanities fall symposium on Saturday afternoon. This year’s event was called Mind the Gap, and focused on the issues surrounding economic inequality and the effects they have on American democracy.

The symposium featured several nationally renowned experts in economics, education, and sociology from various academic and media institutions. The event was divided into three sections, each with their own panel of experts discussing one facet of the larger issue of economic inequality.

“Causes and Consequences” of such inequality was the topic of the first panel discussion. While all three panelists agreed with the reality of income inequality, there was some discrepancy about the notion that it is harmful.

“Economic inequality is not what leads to crises,” said Scott Winship, fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institute. “It is the expansion of credit that leads to economic problems, though oftentimes the two correlate.”
Having established the actuality of economic inequality, the second panel focused on the role of education as it relates to the larger issues of disparity in both income and wealth. Traditionally thought of as the primary tool of social mobility, many of the featured speakers of this section instead argued that education can actually do more to perpetuate the ever-growing economic gap rather than bridge it.

“Access to higher education has stalled in this country,” said Andrew Delbanco, director of American Studies at Columbia University. “If your family makes more than $90,000, then your odds of graduating from college are one in two. If your family makes less than $30,000, then your odds of being a college graduate decrease to one in 17.”
Wealth plays the greatest role in determining what schools children attend, and thus what opportunities they are afforded. This gap in opportunity is what enables the economic gap. Over generations, the gap is perpetuated as children from more privileged backgrounds are afforded more opportunities, and in turn provide the same opportunities to their children, according to Heather Beth Johnson, sociology professor at Lehigh University.

After the first two panels established the reality of economic inequality, the final panel sought to answer the question of what could be done in light of this issue.

It was in this discussion of how to reverse the trend of greater inequality that the most partisan notions of the day emerged.

“If you want to slow or change this trend entirely, the best thing you can do is electing a Democratic president,” said Timothy Noah, senior editor for The New Republic. “Our studies have shown that under Republicans the growth is the greatest at the top, while under Democrat presidents the greatest income moves from the bottom up.”
Noah’s solution also advocates for more active government involvement in the economy to help balance the inequalities between the top and the bottom. Increasing the size of the federal government payroll to resolve the unemployment problem and raising income, capital gains, and the estate tax were a few of the specific suggestions to combat the larger problem.

Although the various panelists clearly displayed different approaches on how to systematically resolve the problem of economic inequality in America, most acknowledged the fundamental nature of inequality as a problem for the county.

“Income inequality is a lot like blood pressure: it’s not good to have it too low, but the higher it gets, the more of a problem you have,” said James Galbraith, professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. “The good news is that again, just like high blood pressure, income inequality is treatable.”

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