Most current high school seniors will be eligible to vote for President in November. U.S. "gaps" in health, wealth, and education are topics they should be exploring in social studies classes to help them make informed choices.
Most of the candidates in the Republican and Democratic Presidential primaries look for scapegoats to blame, claim they can govern better or smarter, promise to make America great again, or play ostrich with its head in the sand ignoring real problems altogether. Meanwhile United States wealth, health, and education gaps continue to grow. The one candidate who acknowledges the growing gaps and calls for direct government action to address inequality is dismissed as impractical. But practical solutions may not be answers at all.
The inequality numbers in the United States are striking.
In a recently released study, economics at the Brookings Institute reported that the longevity gap between richer and poorer is growing at a more rapid rate. In the early 1970s, an affluent a 60-year-old man lived, on the average, a little more than a year longer than someone the same age at the bottom of the income pyramid. In 2001, an affluent a 60-year-old man lived 5.8 years longer than his economically disadvantaged peer. But by 2014, the gap in life expectancy had climbed to fourteen years for men. It was thirteen years for women. In other words, low income robbed poorer men and women of more than a decade of life. It meant that after contributing to Social Security for their entire working careers, they did not live long enough to collect or they only collected a fraction of what wealthier Americans received.
According to a December 2014 report by the Pew Research Center, the wealth gap in the United States between the country's top twenty percent of earners and the rest of the population was at its widest point in three decades. Wealth is defined by Pew as the "difference between the value of a family's assets (such as financial assets as well as home, car and businesses) and debts."
The average wealth of an upper-income family was over $600,000, about seven times greater than the average wealth of a middle class family and SEVENTY times the wealth of lower income families. According to the Pew study middle-income family wealth remained relatively constant over the last thirty years while the wealth of low-income families declined. Meanwhile the wealth of high-income families doubled.
Americans have always considered education an avenue to opportunity and social mobility. But not so coincidently, during the same time period that the wealth gap grew the "education gap" in the United States also increased. Since level of education has a major impact on family income, the "education gap" contributes to the "wealth gap" and the end of the long-held American Dream, at least for most people.
A study by a Stanford University sociologist found that the gap in standardized tests scores between students from affluent and low-income families increased by 40% between roughly 1960 and 2010. The income achievement gap is about double the race achievement gap on these tests. Meanwhile a team of researchers based at the University of Michigan found that the college completion gap between children from wealthy and poor families grew by about fifty percent between the late 1980s and 2008. This is particularly troubling because college completion is the most important predictor of success in the work force and social mobility.
Other studies show the broad implications of the increasing wealth gap on children born into poorer families. For example, there are significant class differences in how children in the United States are being raised. According to a Fall 2015 Pew Research Center survey on Parenting in America, "for lower-income parents, financial instability can limit their children's access to a safe environment and to the kinds of enrichment activities that affluent parents may take for granted." The survey found that "higher-income parents are nearly twice as likely as lower-income parents to rate their neighborhood as an 'excellent' or 'very good' place to raise kids," while "lower-income parents are more likely than those with higher incomes to express concerns about their children being victims of violence."
In affluent families children are more likely to live with two parents and to be engaged in enrichment activities like ballet, soccer and after-school programs. In lower-income families a third of children live in single-parent households and children are much more likely to spend non-school time at home or with extended family. The report argued that their were no better parenting techniques, but that poorer parents had less time and fewer resources to invest in their children which often leaves children from poorer families less prepared to start school and later less prepared for work. The study concluded that class differences in childhood experiences enhanced social division, setting children from different social classes on different educational and economic paths that deepen socioeconomic divisions in the United States where education is strongly linked to earnings.
Money does not ensure good parenting and too much money can bring its own problems. Recent headlines introduced us to a new mental "disorder" called "affluenza," or spoiled rotten by rich, permissive, parents.
Whatever you think about the causes of poverty in the United States and the responsibility or lack of responsibility of some parents, the question remains, "What kind of country punishes children for the failings of their fathers and mothers and condemns them to lives of poverty as children and then as adults?"