Recapturing the American Dream Part III

One of the ways America has changed the most over the past several decades relates directly to education. In the 1950s, one parent with a high school diploma could support a family. Those days are long past. Education has become the great economic and cultural divider in America. You can see its impact in many powerful ways.

Today, a parent’s own educational achievement tends to determine a child’s outcomes in virtually every aspect of life. The highest educational tier is made up of families in which at least one parent possesses a college degree. The middle tier is comprised of families in which the parent has some higher education but less than a four-year diploma, while the bottom tier consists of families in which the parents have earned no more than a high school diploma.

Once set in place, these tiers produce strikingly different outcomes for the children born into them. Two of the most significant are these: just 1 in 10 children of college-educated parents grow up in a single parent home, while 2 in 3 children, whose parents earned no more than a diploma, grow up in a single-parent home. Seventy percent of children of a never-married parent live in poverty.

This economic poverty has often come with social and cultural poverty and commonly means the child grows up isolated from much of the support and mentoring other children know. The result of all this has been that children of parents with no more than a high school diploma, experience a more-pronounced inequality of opportunity than at any other period in the last century of American life. This shift has been so impactful that upward mobility–a hallmark of American values—is today rare. Students whose parents are poor are five times more likely to drop out of school than those of well-off parents. It’s especially stark in South Dakota: we have the widest gap in the nation in graduation rates between low-income students and children of well-off parents.

Aside from the incalculable loss to the quality of a human life, the financial stakes to society of how these children fare academically are high. It has been estimated that the cost to the public for every child who fails to earn a diploma is around $388,000 in lost productivity and welfare assistance.

Even after an achieving, low-income student earns a diploma, barriers exist for further education. College graduation rates also have become so stratified by income that among students with an average level of academic ability, those who come from high-income homes are now about six times more likely to earn a college degree than youths from low-income homes. The ultimate assault on the American concept of merit-based achievement, however, lies in this reality: today it is less likely that a high-scoring poor student will earn a college degree than a low-scoring student from a well-off home.  While this is not what we think of as the American way, it has become the American reality.

If you want to help me fight in Congress, for laws that will change these trends, you can donate online at timbjorkman.com or mail your contribution to Tim Bjorkman for South Dakota, PO Box 201, Canistota, SD 57012.