Sept. 21, 2000
Vol. 20 No. 1

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    Educational inequalities among children is focus of professor’s research

    By Peter Schuler
    News Office

    Susan Mayer, Associate Professor in the Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies, has devoted most of her academic career to researching the causes and consequences of economic inequality in the United States. She has especially focused on the importance of inequality for children.

    Her most recent research focuses on how economic inequality, which dramatically increased between 1970 and 1990, affects children’s educational attainment. Though hundreds of studies have explored the causes of the increase in income inequality over the past twenty-five years in the United States, many fewer have examined the consequences of this trend, particularly for children. Mayer’s findings suggest that the growth in inequality may have improved the overall education attainment of American children, but it did it by improving the educational outcomes of high-income children, while hurting the educational outcomes of low-income children.

    As described in her 1997 book What Money Can’t Buy: Family Income and Children’s Life Chances, Mayer found that family income played a surprisingly modest role in children’s chances for success. That research led her to her interest in the ways that inequality affects children’s behavior independent of their family income.

    Mayer believes her research shows that government can play a significant and positive role in improving the welfare of children and hopes her findings will help “erase cynicism about the government’s inability to help people.” In her book she argues that income has a relatively modest effect on children’s outcomes because government programs such as food stamps, Medicaid and housing subsidies have helped make it possible for even most poor children to have access to the basic necessities. In her new work she provides evidence that state spending on elementary and secondary schooling may reduce the negative effects of inequality on low-income children’s educational attainment. She also shows that when the costs of attending college are lower, either because tuition is low or because financial aid is high, more poor children attend college. Thus, state financing of education can help equalize opportunity for rich and poor children.

    Mayer also notes that government policies to help disadvantaged children are not the sole purview of either the political right or political left. “President Nixon proposed what would have been the most generous welfare program in our history, and important programs for children have been implemented and grown under both Republican and Democratic administrations,” she said. The issue is not so much about party politics as it is about the government providing resources that ultimately provide equality of opportunity for children in school.

    But her new research presents a challenge to policy makers. If inequality increases overall educational attainment but reduces educational attainment for the poor, policymakers must find a way to maintain the benefits for the rich while addressing the negative impact of the inequality on children from poor families. Mayer sees this as the key challenge. “We can help break the cycle of poverty by assuring that everybody has the same chance to invest in education.”

    There are no easy answers in this field, yet government policies pertaining to the allocation of resources have a profound impact on families over many generations.

    “If you want to equalize the opportunity of kids,” Mayer said, “you probably will want to do it through institutions like schools rather than believing that a child’s family life is the key factor.”

    Mayer was surprised to find that the effects of inequality are more often due to the effect of other people’s income rather than the individual income level of a household. As the rich have gotten richer, they benefit from positive interpersonal comparisons, while the poor suffer from negative comparisons. These comparisons affect educational attainment. High levels of inequality may make poor adults feel worse off, increasing alienation and stress, resulting in lower expectations for their children.

    In Mayer’s studies of income disparity, data showed that college graduation rates among low-income children were reduced, while rates for high-income children increased. However, Mayer’s research led to the conclusion that economic inequality does have some societal benefits by increasing graduation rates overall. Income inequality had the positive effect of increasing investments in schooling. In states that spent the most on schooling, tuition did not increase, and there was more financial aid available. This helped narrow the gap between rich and poor children.

    Mayer also found that state education policies made important differences in the educational attainments of poor children. When states invest in education, all children benefit. Where money has been spent on schools and social programs, educational opportunities have always improved for the poor as well as the rich, Mayer said.