It’s not charity. It’s a commitment to equalizing opportunity

580 200 David Grusky

(Photo Credit: Violeta Vaquerio)

This is the latest in a series of columns on what can and should be done to improve upward mobility in California. We at California Forward and the California Economic Summit welcome your comments and ideas.

Why did Governor Jerry Brown recently sign a state budget that substantially increases California’s anti-poverty spending? The 2017-18 budget expands the California Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), increases funding for preschool and child care, and provides additional support for after-school programs. The very good news: These investments should yield a non-trivial decrease in our state’s sky-high poverty rate.

Why did the Governor support a new infusion of spending? It might of course be understood as a simple act of charity that’s been made possible by the state’s relatively strong economy. In some ways, the state’s safety net is akin to a church’s food bank, just a much larger version and financed by taxes rather than the collection box. It is a collective expression, in other words, of our charitable impulse to help those who need our help.

It is very likely that this charitable impulse is indeed an important part of the story. The type of programs that were expanded suggests, however, that another type of logic was additionally at work. I’m referring here to an equal opportunity logic: The safety net, rather than just being a form of charity, is also one of our state’s main institutions for leveling the playing field.

This side of the safety net is often unappreciated. It is not always recognized that one of the safety net’s main functions is to ensure that all children, no matter how poor their parents, have some measure of opportunity to get a good job and successfully participate in our strong economy. It is of course no easy task to realize this commitment insofar as well-off parents can afford high-quality healthcare, childcare, and schooling in ways that then advantage their children in securing later opportunities. The core function of the safety net is to compensate, if only partially and incompletely, for those unfair advantages that accrue to children whose parents have the money to buy them opportunity.

This commitment to equalizing opportunity runs through many of our safety net programs. The leading arm of the safety net, the home visiting program, provides information on health and parenting to families of at-risk children in ways that ensure that they fully realize their capacities. Even at 18 months old, children from poor households are much slower at identifying pictures of simple words, partly because poverty-induced stress and health problems affect their brain’s architecture and lead to long-term cognitive deficits. Because the effects of poverty register so early in children, and because these effects then have long-lasting consequences, the home visiting program is charged with intervening early enough to reduce these effects and consequences and thereby equalize opportunities.

The rationale for compensatory early childhood education, another key safety net program, is likewise rooted in equal-opportunity logic. The purpose of early childhood education is to take up where home visiting programs leave off by providing the early experiences and stimulation that can then reduce cognitive underperformance among low-income children. It is again a simple matter of ensuring that all children, even those born into poor families, are afforded the same opportunity to realize their capacities by providing them with high-quality early training.

This equal-opportunity logic also informs our compensatory efforts in later childhood. We fund educational programs to improve opportunities for academic success in low-income schools; we set up dedicated extracurricular and summer-school activities for low-income children; we further provide these children with compensatory information about preparing for and applying to college; and we also provide financial aid and loans that allow low-income children to attend college or secure other forms of post-secondary training.

The shared logic behind these programs is that, because opportunity is effectively sold on the market, children from families with less market capacity have fewer opportunities to buy opportunity for their children. The complex of institutions that we dub the safety net is in fact more properly referred to as “opportunity-equalizing” institutions.

With this understanding of the safety net and its rationale, we might now return to the 2017-18 budget, asking whether the funding priorities embedded within it express some larger logic. Is it mere accident that Governor Brown and the state legislature decided – every step of the way – to fund preschool, child care, and after school programs that may be regarded as opportunity-providing in just this sense? These decisions, far from being accidental, instead suggest a commitment to the premise that opportunity ought not be put on the market and made available only to children who are lucky enough to have parents who can buy it for them.

The skeptic might note, however, that the new budget also includes a massive infusion to the California EITC. Isn’t this just a cash handout to adults rather than some opportunity-enhancing intervention? The unequivocal answer: No.

Although the EITC is sometimes understood as mere income supplementation for low-earnings workers, it is just as important that it also increases the opportunities available to children born into low-income families. The EITC has impressive downstream benefits: It reduces the likelihood of low-weight births; it improves the academic performance of children; and it ultimately increases college enrollment. When parental income is increased via the EITC, children are raised in healthier and less stressful circumstances, which in turn give them the capacity and opportunity to make human capital investments of the sort routinely available to children from higher-income backgrounds. The EITC is, in short, one of the state’s most important opportunity-equalizing institutions.

This is not to suggest that all safety net programs are best understood as opportunity equalizing. Rather, my more moderate claim is that one of the main functions of the safety net is to equalize opportunity, a function that’s typically overlooked by those who instead seek to position it as a form of charity.

The simple upshot: The pattern of spending decisions in the state’s new budget suggest a renewed a recommitment to the premise that, at least in California, we’re going to stop putting opportunity up for sale. Have we done enough on behalf of this commitment? Of course not. But the new budget is an important start.

David B. Grusky is Barbara Kimball Browning Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University, Professor of Sociology, and Senior Fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.



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