Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Of Income Gaps, Fertility, and Crises in Hiding

A few semesters ago, I had the opportunity to teach a class on the American Dream. It was a great class, and we had a lot of good discussions about what the Dream means, if it exists, and whether it has any relevancy in our contemporary society.

One of the points that kept coming up again and again--whether we were discussing race and the Dream or housing policies or the value of labor--was American income disparity. You've probably seen the charts featured here. Americans who were polled on what they thought America's wealth distribution looked like frequently picked the middle chart--where the top 20% had 36% of the wealth. In actuality, America is represented by the bottom chart--where the top 20% have 84% of the wealth and the bottom 40% are left with a paltry .3% of the wealth.

Our class discussions often centered around how problematic this was for the concept of the American Dream. While some income disparity is necessary for the very concept of social mobility to exist, a gap that is too wide cannot be bridged, freezing the lower class where they are, and essentially denying them access to the Dream.

With these discussions as a backdrop, I was interested to read "Knocked Up and Knocked Down" on Slate by Sharon Lerner.

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See, money is not the only thing different between these two increasingly separated groups of Americans. In fact, Lerner goes so far as to say "our country is actually more like two countries." In one of these countries, we are having a childlessness problem. The wealthiest sector of Americans aren't having enough babies, and Lerner compares this crisis to the fertility rate crises of many European nations, crises that are being responded to with better family-work balance policies, incentives for having children, and a general cultural attention to the problem.

Meanwhile, the low-income sector of America is having too many unplanned pregnancies: "poor women [are] now five times more likely than higher-income women to have an unplanned pregnancy, and six times more likely to have an unplanned birth." In addition, they are "more likely to smoke, drink, and go without prenatal care. Their births are more likely to be premature. Their children are less likely to be breastfed, and more likely to be neglected and to have various physical and mental health effects. Then, reinforcing the cycle, the very fact of having a child increases a woman's chances of being poor."

However, looking at America as whole hides both of these crises. Combined, the birth rate is a healthy 2.1 children/woman, a rate that doesn't suggest an overwhelming population growth or a staggering population decline.

What's at stake in smothering these narratives beneath averages? Neither population has the advocacy or attention it needs. Lerner discusses policies in the European countries aimed at making childcare for working parents easier. America is far behind the curve on these types of policies, and part of that may be because the crisis isn't very well vocalized.

Meanwhile, the idea that the overall birth rate will even out ignores the fact that it is much, much harder for a child born in poverty to climb out of it. In my own field, for instance, I know that children born to parents without college degrees have a much harder time successfully completing degrees themselves both because of finances and because they aren't always given the cultural tools to navigate the collegiate landscape.

To me, this is just another example of why attention to diverse perspectives is important. By focusing on a unified American perspective, we sweep problems under the rug, but these are problems that affect all of us, and they are certainly problems that will require a multi-faceted approach to solve.

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