Tuesday, February 23, 2016

More Bad Poverty News

We have seen versions of these findings before, but one more study drives home the point again-- education does not erase the economics of your family of origin.

This particular study is written up by Brad Hershbein over at Brookings, and the findings are short, simple, and important.

While some folks accept that a person from a rich family and a person from a somewhat-less-rich family won't be put on a level playing field by a college degree, they'll at least enjoy the same sort of boost from that education. But Hershbein's research says, no, that's not how it works. This chart spells it out--

(FPL is Federal Poverty Level)

In other words, a BA helps rich kids get way richer, while a BA helps poor kids get only just a little bit less not-poor.

As I said, this is not exactly news. A Johns Hopkins study over twenty-five years in Baltimore cemented the importance of family-of-origin. Robert Putnam wrote an entire book about how access to social capital is both product and producer of differences between wealthy and not-wealthy children.

The results are clearly not exactly what Hershbein expected, and he reports that he and his partners are moving next to see if the findings hold up for other data sets as well as looking for explanations (neighborhood, location, college choice for non-wealthy students?). It is frankly refreshing to see a researcher first come upon results that don't match his pre-existing assumptions and then not leap to trying to explain them away.

If a college degree is not the great equalizer we hoped, strategies to increase social mobility by promoting post-secondary education will fall short. A more comprehensive approach may be needed.

I look forward to seeing what else Hershbein et al turn up. In the meantime, it's nice to have further proof that simply jamming poor students into a college will not magically erase poverty. 


  1. I have always heard that poor kids go to college to get an education, and rich kids go to college to make connections.

  2. I think dollars are just one type of social capital that parents can pass on to their kids. My own parents taught at a State University, for which they were paid enough to make us solidly middle class economically. However, as academics their social status was lots higher than their income: most of their non-academic friends were in a much higher income bracket. So my social circle growing up included lots of upper-income professionals.

    Also, when I got to college I was extremely well prepared for it since I had basically grown up on campus and therefore already had a good idea what to expect.