Friday, November 2, 2012

The opportunity gap and the political gap

This piece by Lane Kenworthy provides a concise and well-informed discussion of the causes of and potential policy solutions for the apparent decline in intergenerational economic mobility in the United States--that is, the failure of equal opportunity. A central tenet of the "American creed" is that over their life course, people should have a roughly equal chance of pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. Recent trends toward greatly increased income and wealth inequality would sit a little better with many if they were not accompanied by a caste-like divide reproduced across generations.

Because he advocates a more activist and redistributive role for government, Kenworthy's prescriptions will appeal more to liberals than to conservatives. But he does not short-change the views of James Heckman and others, generally associated with the right, that changes in family structure have played an important--perhaps central--role in reducing upward intergenerational mobility in the past several decades. Policy interventions in families are constrained by the requirements of basic liberty and respect for the private sphere, but there is still much that a thoughtful and sensitive government could do to provide support and assistance to disadvantaged parents and kids.

Or so say the wonks. But even if the wonks offer some good ideas about how to narrow the opportunity gap, we also face a gap in political will. Last night I joined a standing-room crowd at Santa Clara U to hear Bobby Seale speak. He was plugging his books and movie projects, but in the meantime offered a compelling if somewhat meandering account of the history of the Black Panthers. If some of his recollections were self-serving (a young person could get the impression the Panthers were right up there with ma and apple pie), it was nonetheless bracing to be reminded of a time in American history when grassroots activism was forcing social change, while simultaneously promoting community self-help in the form of school breakfast programs, health clinics, etc.

Seale believes that what scared J Edgar Hoover most was not those angry black men and women with their afros, rhetoric, and guns, but those free breakfasts for little kids. That was ground zero for the revolution. The wonks would agree.

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