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Considering Thomas Piketty, inequality and family fragmentation

Far too many American boys and girls are growing up with shortages of guidance, often immersed in disorganization.

French economist Thomas Piketty is hot these days.
REUTERS/Charles Platiau

French economist Thomas Piketty is hot these days, contending that capitalism doesn’t lift enough boats and may lift even fewer as we sail further into the night.  For the sake of argument (and only that), let’s say he’s right. 

But to what extent might Piketty be correct at this moment in America, not because of any fundamental flaws in capitalism, but rather (at the risk of even more marine metaphors) because enormous numbers of potential boaters are habitual no-shows at docks? Men and women (but mostly men) who are insufficiently equipped to climb aboard anything seaworthy, making it exceedingly hard and often impossible for them to participate in the most successful economic system ever devised by human and/or invisible hands.

Early in his big and important book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” Piketty writes of the essential role played by education and training in reducing inequality. 

“Knowledge and skill diffusion,” he argues, “is the key to overall productivity growth as well as the reduction of inequality both within and between countries.” And a page later: “It is obvious that lack of adequate investment in training can exclude entire social groups from the benefits of economic growth. … In short, the principal force for convergence – the diffusion of knowledge – is only partly natural and spontaneous. It also depends in large part on the educational policies, access to training and to the acquisition of appropriate skills, and associated institutions.” By “convergence,” Piketty means decreased inequality.

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Sounds on-target. But in considering the current nature of inequality (and, thereby, mobility) in the United States, it’s not as if we haven’t been investing tons of money in education and training. As reported, for instance, by the National Center for Education Statistics earlier this year, spending on K-12 education in the United States, at last count and from all public and private sources, was 39-percent higher per full-time equivalent student than the average among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 34 member nations.  As for postsecondary education, the United States spent almost twice as much per FTE as did OECD nations on average. But as documented regularly, no matter how much we spend on education, achievement needles and gaps barely budge. Factors other than parsimony would seem to be at play.

What in blazes is going on here?  Obviously, any number of educational policies and practices are seriously deficient.  Take your pick which ones, but young people generally don’t preemptively forfeit the rest of their lives for reasons so ultimately thin. One would like to think not anyway. Sure, critics of capitalism, especially if they’ve spent too much time in graduate school, might argue that it’s precisely capitalism that’s provoking such all-purpose defeatism, sometimes to the point of French-flavored ennui. But most Americans hold markets in higher esteem than that, even if they’re partial to pommes frites with their burgers.    

Growing up with shortages of guidance

My own explanations for so much failure, first academically and then occupationally, are not as philosophically fancy. Rather, they focus in large measure on the fact that the United States has just about the highest family fragmentation rates in the industrial world, meaning that far too many American boys and girls are growing up with shortages of guidance, often immersed in disorganization. Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew Cherlin summarizes matters this way:

There is more marriage but more divorce. There are more lone parents but also more repartnering. Cohabiting relationships are shorter. Over the course of people’s adult lives, there is more movement into and out of marriages and cohabiting relationships than in other countries. The sheer number of partners people experience during their lives is greater.

Which takes us to about 40 hours of interviews with 40 exceptionally smart Americans from California to northeast of the New York island for a new book of mine coming out in August.  Among other topics, I asked them to talk about the ways in which they believe massive rates of family fragmentation are causing great educational and other problems in the lives of many millions of Americans, both kids and adults. Here are comments by Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution, of whom I had just more specifically asked how he rated family fragmentation as a problem facing the nation.

On a scale of one to ten, probably a fifteen; it’s the biggest problem we have. It’s having a tremendous impact on children. … Until the last thirty years or so, we led the world in education, now we’re way down the list. We have so many studies regarding fragmentation’s effects on children with so many techniques, including longitudinal studies with very good data, controlling everything we can control for, and over and over again we get the same results.   

A tragedy with real impacts

Referring to the chaos in many single-parent households, with mothers and fathers moving on to new relationships, Haskins said:

So imagine these households. Anybody who has ever suffered through the breakup of a serious relationship knows the consternation and drama involved. This is the environment in which many single mothers are trying to raise their children, but pretty soon they have kids from two fathers or even more in the same household.  It’s a tragedy and it’s going to have real impacts on the country.

Now, it’s true that other respondents, scholars on the left such as Elijah Anderson, Stephanie Coontz, and Elaine Tyler May drew connections between the effects Haskins describes and capitalism’s alleged hammers, as when University of Minnesota historian Ann Tyler May conceived family fragmentation as “a symptom of economic hardship, oppression, and lack of opportunity.”

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This is not the moment for my debating May, so let me just note I very much enjoyed meeting and interviewing her, as I did all respondents with whom I disagreed on various points. And to be sure, I also acknowledge that no economic system is free of problematic byproducts. Still, an essential point to be made is that the surest way for young people to avoid what critics might condemn as capitalism’s collateral and unequal damages, or escape “strip-mined communities” (as Yale’s Elijah Anderson graphically put it), is for them to get a decent education. A route Piketty would applaud.

But further complicating matters, of course, is that as long as many American communities have nonmarital birthrates of 70 and 80 percent and more (whatever the reasons may be), chances are slim that many of their young people will make it through college since their chances of making it out of high school may not be better than 50-50. With all this sadly holding true no matter how much more money we realistically spend on education, either in Minnesota or elsewhere across the nation.

Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis. His newest book, “Broken Bonds: What Family Fragmentation Means for America’s Future,” will be released by Rowman & Littlefield in August.


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