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Income Inequality & Educational ‘Performance’.

Income inequality is associated with increases in social and health problems. The associated problems which increase are levels of social mistrust, mental illness and drug use, reduced life expectancy and infant mortality, obesity, lower children’s educational performance, teenage births, more homicides, larger imprisonment rates, more homicides, and reduced social mobility.


Educational performance is the portion of the social and health index explored in this post. Educational performance influences future employment and earnings, health, political engagement (voting), and work satisfaction. In income unequal societies, educational performance is lower, and seems deflated by factors external to the individual.

The Spirit Level authors, Wilkinson & Pickett used data from Math and Literacy Scores of 15 year olds from international statistics to show that scores were lower in more unequal countries. For States within the United States the authors used data for Math and Literacy scores for eighth graders which showed that lower scores were associated with more unequal States. International data for adult literacy also showed the same association with income inequality.


The above chart shows high educational attainment countries in the top half and left quadrant, and low attaining income unequal countries in the lower half and right quadrant of the chart. The line for educational attainment slopes downward as countries take their places more toward income inequality. What are the income equality countries doing right that the unequal countries are not doing or are doing less of?  What do these charts mean? One more factoid, please.


The most overarching fact is the number of drop outs. More unequal States have higher than average numbers of drop-outs. Dropping out of high school is not related to income, not confined to the poor. Dropping out of high school was higher in poor States, but inequality’s relationship to dropping out of high school is independent of poverty. More income equal States like Alaska, Wyoming, Utah, and New Hampshire had the lowest rates for drop outs and did very well on math and literacy scores, with Alaska’s literacy scores in the middle (Figure 8.2, p. 106, The Spirit Level).

In order to raise a nation’s standard for educational performance, a nation must reduce the income inequalities within a society, thereby reducing the extreme social gradient of ‘inequalities’.  The standard refrain from income inequality deniers is that if we want to reduce economic income inequality and reduce the severe slope of the socioeconomic gradient, that we must just “work harder and do better in school”. They have it backwards. Every bit of research, evidence, and personal experience appears to show them wrong.

In highly income unequal societies, parental education and adult literacy scores are tightly correlated and lower.( I am looking at a chart on page 109 of the Spirit Level book. Literacy scores are plotted on the Y axis. Parent’s education from less than middle school to college and higher is plotted on the x axis.) There is a negative sixty point gap between scores for someone born to parents with less than middle school education in the U.S. and someone born to parents with less than middle school education in Finland. That same Finnish child born to less educated parents, starts with a higher literacy score equivalent to a child born in the U.S., whose parents completed college.  It appears that educational attainment (literacy score) is plastic and malleable, and depends heavily upon the environment (income equal or income inequality) into which one is born.

What are the More Equal Income  Countries Doing To Educate All of Their Children?

Stronger welfare provisions. Public spending on education. Income support for parents with children. Social support for parents and for positive parenting. Sustaining opportunities for parents to remain socially connected to their children. Early childhood quality of life is supported in income equal countries. This is crucial. In the income unequal country, the UK, a three year old child from a disadvantaged family is already one year behind a child from more privileged families. In addition to a good early childhood start,  more equal societies offer a better quality of social relationships, less mistrust of others, better physical health and conditions which are good for mental health.

This may seem obvious, but there is also an attempt in more income equal countries to educate all children and all adults. That 80-85% then become educated and are able to take on roles in their societies is an admirable outcome. Education is free in the sense that because everyone pays for it through taxes, no child or adult carries a crushing burden of college debt.

What are the income unequal countries doing to prevent better outcomes?

There is no guarantee of access to a free quality, public education and no established civil right to a quality education.  In competitive, unequal societies, children face differences in the quality of their educations, and as adults they have to pay for their educations instead of having it offered to them for as an established community service similar to the provision of access to water, roads, and public safety officers. The social stresses of violence, physical insecurity, social mistrust, of rejection, isolation and inferiority experiences also play a role in more unequal societies; they impair learning and  put a focus on survival and on ‘saving face’ in a shaming world.

In addition, the American frequent negation of the value of education has developed to cover the cognitive dissonance of never being allowed to succeed educationally and of being prepared inadequately by factory-like schools. Disadvantaged groups are taught to disdain college education instead of seeing that they have been denied access to a college education. Pride is often expressed in anti-intellectual put-downs, claiming that one is not ‘stuck up’ and ‘pretentious’ like educated folk seem to be.

Examples of Disadvantage.

As an example of socioeconomic disadvantage I would cite the lack of access to books and to computers in the home. Recalling the Time/Life series of books available for a steep premium when I was a lad, and I could not afford them.  And the One Small Square books about nature to inspire the elementary school-aged scientist. Remember them? I only knew of them because my parents read a newspaper review about them. Also, I am reminded that many of today’s students do not have 24/7 access to computer resources. In one program, a scholarship for low income youths in vocational technology was advertised on a website which most of the target recipients could not access because they did not have a computer. Disadvantaged students often do not have an educated parent to steer them toward resources which might help them to, for example, write a paper or learn more about a topic. And then there is the cost of going farther than High School and pursuing a college degree. In the U.S., even middle class youths are questioning the cost of and the utility of going to college. There’s Kristina who must work as a bartender at night to pay for college living expenses (she borrows to pay the tuition) during the day, and she considers herself lucky to have the job. And debt bondage after college especially if the student is unable to find a decent job in the worst job market since the 1930s.

Unequal Societies Do Not Have A Commitment to Educate Everyone.

Most significantly, the more unequal countries do not commit to educating everyone over the entire course of the lifespan. Access to quality education is not uniformly equal in public schools.  Private schools undermine economic fairness by creating social networks for future employment and bypassing their legitimate competitors among the general public. There is no attempt to create conditions for every person to successfully complete high school and post-graduate education. Individuals are expected to pay for any education they pursue beyond High School in the U.S.. Western rich democracies talk the talk but do not educate their citizens in a fair and affordable manner.

The Internalization of Contempt and Neglect.

And because as human beings we register when we are being treated as inferiors by others,  and when we are being cheated, many people in unequal countries internalize these. Their ‘performance’ reflects the impression that they are expected to be inferior, and they live down to the stereotype being projected upon them. Their ‘performance’ reflects back to us that we never expected them to succeed, and that we disrespected their abilities even when their performance was superb.

The above charts are used with permission from the  More research evidence is available at the Trust’s website with links to original research papers.

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