Inequality in the US has grown substantially since 1980. As a result, “poverty”, often defined as the fraction of families with incomes less than half the average income, has increased greatly. Similarly, “near poverty”, defined say as families with incomes between a half and three quarters of average income, has also grown by a lot. It is no surprise that greater income and wealth inequality has a big effect on the degree of poverty since it is a property of all distributions that more variability especially raises the fraction of observations at the tails of the distribution. In the income and wealth case, this means particularly rapid increases in the fractions of the poor and very wealthy as inequality increases.
The main causes of the growth in US earnings inequality are in order of importance: the large increase in returns to education and other skills, the rapid growth in households headed by unmarried mothers, the financial crisis and the resulting large expansion of unemployment, especially of lower income workers, and the big growth in some income maintenance programs that have induced some workers to leave the labor force.
Previous discussions on our blog and elsewhere have documented the rapid growth during past 40 years in the returns to college education, and to a lesser extent to high school graduation. The large expansion in the fraction of children living in households headed by a single parent increased to about 28% due to the boom in divorce rates and in the tendency of women to have children without being married. The recession that accompanied the financial crisis raised unemployment rates of high school dropouts from 7% in 2007 to more than 13% at its peak. This is still at a highly elevated rate. Finally, the recession lowered eligibility requirements for food stamps, Medicaid, mortgage reduction, and other welfare programs. This led to a decline in labor force participation among lower income workers in order to increase their prospects of qualifying for these benefits (see the evidence and discussion in Casey Mulligan’s “The Redistribution Recession”).
Many separate approaches are available to attack each of these causes of greater poverty rates, but improved education would significantly reduce the incidence of each one. The crucial education improvement would be in much lower dropout rates from high school and from four-year college programs. Lower dropout rates starting soon would take years to affect a large fraction of labor force, but the benefits would be enormous. First of all, the fraction of persons with very low incomes would decline greatly since high school dropouts and some high school graduates make up the bulk of the low-income population, although a boost in the fraction of the labor force who graduated high school and finished college would also lower the returns to education.
Educated persons have more stable marriages and are less likely to have children out of wedlock or out of stable non-married relations. This means that reducing high school and college dropouts would also reduce the incidence of the family structures that lead to low household incomes. Greater education may not reduce the incidence of serious recessions, but it would reduce the vulnerability of the labor force to these recessions. Finally, a more educated population would be less tempted to leave the labor force to take advantage of food stamps and other welfare programs because they would then have to give up too much in the way of earnings.
There is no magic way to improve the education of younger persons, especially given the vicious cycle between less educated and low-income parents, broken households, and low education and other poor performance of children. However, as argued in more detail in earlier blogs (see for example Sept. 2012 on “Good and Bad Teachers”), more charter schools and a greater use of school vouchers, teacher evaluations based on objective measures of their performance, much better pay for good teachers (such as teachers whose students perform better), and weaker tenure for bad teachers would go a considerable way toward reducing school dropouts and improving the overall education performance of American students.