Income Matters More Than Race

Wealthy > White

This year many people are commemorating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. This speech had lofty goals and among them was making education more equal for Whites and African-Americans. At the time, race was the most important factor in determining whether or not a child would be successful in school. Now fifty years later, race is not as important as another factor: wealth.

Children in the poorest American families are now an average of four grade levels of knowledge behind children in the richest families. The racial gap stands still at around three years. This is a bit bittersweet because although the racial gap is no longer the main obstacle to children this is only so because wealth has become more of an obstacle. The racial gap has not moved far in the last half-century. Let's look at some of the main reasons that wealth has become such a hot issue in education.

Investing in Children

Children who come from wealthy families are now more able than ever before to get ahead of their peers. Disposable income has risen rapidly for the richest families over the past 40 years but has risen much more slowly for lower-income groups.

The extra money that richer parents now have has allowed them to spend more on early educational opportunities for their children. Many wealthy children can now afford private preschools, language classes and a host of extracurricular activities that other students cannot. At the same time, public schools have cut back funding and have been asked to do more with less. These factors together push wealthy children up while putting extra pressure on children from lower-income families. 

The gap also tends to self-perpetuate. As wealthy children increasingly outperform lower-income children they are more able to get into top tier universities and thus are more likely to land high-paying jobs. The wider the gap grows between the groups, the easier it is for the disparities to become even stronger.

School Achievement Gaps

Similarly, there are geographical divisions between where rich and poor families live. This impacts the quality of public education across the country. Poorer school districts often receive less property tax revenue and spend extra money recruiting and paying teachers. These districts often struggle with underfunding, outdated books and classroom overcrowding. Richer public schools often have the tax funds to ward off many of these issues. As students in poorer districts receive less funding, they do not have the resources to keep up with wealthier peers in neighboring school districts.