KIM WEEDEN: Welcome. Welcome to the Charter Day panel on the American dream. My name is Kim Weeden. I'm a professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences. I am also the Robert S. Harrison director of the Institute for the Social Sciences. And I currently direct the Center for the Study of Inequality. I'll be your host and your moderator today for this panel.
And I'm delighted to be joined by two of my faculty colleagues, Kendra Bischoff from the Department of Sociology, and Peter Enns from the Department of Government. I should say that Peter Enns, kindly, is filling in for a colleague of his who was on the original program but who experienced a family emergency earlier this week. And we also had two absolutely wonderful Cornell alumni here with us this morning, Adrian Palma and Dominique Corley.
So the plan for the morning is this. I'm going to start out by giving you a few comments about the general state of equality of opportunity in America today and to try to give you a sense of what some of the social scientific questions are that have been asked about this, a very basic sense of what the research is all about.
I'll then turn over the floor to Kenda Bischoff, who is going to talk about education and the role of education in ensuring equality of opportunity. Kendra will be followed by Peter, who's going to talk a little bit about some of his research that looks at the interface between equality of opportunity and the political system and politics in America. And then Adrian Palma is going to talk a little bit about some of the work that he did, both while at Cornell and immediately following Cornell, which is really in sort of the sphere of social entrepreneurship and trying to effect positive change in America.
I'm going to jump back in and give you a brief plug for the Center for the Study of Inequality, which is one of the centers I direct, and very much relevant to today's panel. And then I'll turn over to the floor, finally, to Dominique, who's going to talk about her award-winning honors thesis research that she did while she was here at Cornell. I'll do some wrap-up, and then I'll open up the floor to questions and hopefully answers.
The concept of the American dream is often credited to historian James Truslow Adams. Writing in 1931, he described it as, "a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain the full stature of which they are innately capable and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of their birth or position." As is so often the case, Adams was standing on the shoulder of giants.
And really the idea of the American dream, if not that particular label, predates him by about 300 years in America. It's embedded in John Winthrop's and 1630 exhortation to the Puritan settlers to create a city on the Hill. It's embedded in the Declaration of Independence that all men, all white men at the time, have an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It's embedded in the writings of the abolitionists who fought for the end of slavery in the mid 1800s, in the Horatio Alger Rags to Riches children's fiction in the 1860s, and the suffragists who fought for women's rights in the late 1800s, in the progressives who pushed for the New Deal, in the Civil Rights movement, in the feminist movement, and so forth. It also appears in virtually every stump speech or political speech by every president and every political candidate since then. So we have that to look forward to in the next election cycle.
Faith in the American dream has also waxed and waned throughout America's history. Today, faith in the American dream is really at what seems to be an all-time low, relative to what we have data on, at least. According to the American Values Survey in 2014, only 42% of Americans think that the American dream-- meaning that if you work hard, you'll get ahead-- holds true. Among high school dropouts, only 38%, just over a third, believes that the American dream is still true. College graduates are a bit more optimistic. But even so, among baccalaureate holders in the United States, less than half, 48%, actually believe that the American dream is still true.
This finding about declining belief in the American dream has also been found in other sorts of surveys that have asked other types of questions. In a 2013 Gallup poll, 43% of respondents said that the average American isn't likely to get ahead. This compares to 1952, only 8% of Americans thought that. So there's been an enormous, enormous shift in belief about the veracity of the American dream.
Is this pessimism warranted? To what extent do the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position, to use Adam's phrasing, affect whether success is attained, however that success is defined? What are the barriers to equality of opportunity and what promotes equality of opportunity? How can we, as a society with a deep-seated cultural commitment to equality of opportunity, level the playing field, so that all children can move up through their own merit and hard work?
Equality of opportunity is not simply an issue of fairness. A society that's riddled with barriers to mobility or that allocates educational opportunities and jobs partly on the basis of nepotism or on the basis of birth is wasting talent and economic potential. A society in which equality of opportunity is only a dream for many people creates a populace that tends to be apathetic, disillusioned, and perhaps even prone to political violence. A society in which failure is interpreted solely in individualistic terms is a society in which its members are perpetually anxious.
As de Tocqueville, that famous French travel writer, wrote in the 1830s, "Americans are constantly tormented by a vague fear of not having chosen the fastest route to material well-being." So these are the types of issues and questions that have captured the attention of social scientists for decades and that are really now coming to the fore in public discussion and discourse in America.
Sociologists who study social and economic mobility often make a distinction between absolute mobility and relative mobility. Absolute mobility is simply the amount of movement that there is between the social and economic standing of the parents, on the one hand, and the social and economic standing of the adult children of those same parents, on the other hand.
In a society in which everyone's income is rising, or in which a growing share of the jobs that are out there available for children to take when they grow up are being created in relatively high-paying professional and managerial sectors, there tends to be a lot of absolute mobility in those types of societies. A rising tide lifts all boats, as the saying goes. In a society where only the top earners are seeing their incomes increase, or where most of the jobs that are being created are in the low-wage service sector, there are fewer opportunities for the sons and daughters than there were for their parents. Upward mobility is less likely. Downward mobility is more likely.
Absolute mobility is thus linked to the structure of labor markets, the types of jobs that are available to both the parents and to their children, when their children grow up and enter the labor market. And it's also related to whether the income gains are being felt across the class structure or just concentrated in a few pockets of the class structure.
In terms of absolute mobility, there's good news and there's bad news in the United States. The good news is that until very recently, adult children could expect to have higher earnings than their parents did at the same life stage. Among all Americans, 83% of adults have a higher income than their parents at the same age. And until recently, the US was also characterized by a lot of upward mobility in occupations, as well, because of the rapid expansion of the professional and managerial sector that created lots of new positions for children of farmers and children of manufacturing workers to enter.
The bad news, though, is that absolute mobility has dwindled. For the first time in the modern era, the median income for young adults aged 18 to 35 who are just starting their careers is actually less, in inflation-adjusted terms, than the median income for, again, young adults of the past generation. The millennials, as they're called, are not doing as well as the baby boomers did. The millennials are often facing downward mobility in the occupational structure, too, as the massive growth of the professional and managerial sector has waned and a growing share of the occupations are found in the service sector.
Students at Cornell, I suspect like students everywhere, tend to joke about learning how to say, do you want fries with that. Their jokes, I think, are fairly tinged with anxiety. And I kind of get the sense that they have their fingers crossed behind their back when they say it.
The second kind of mobility, relative mobility, refers to the link between the occupations that your parents held and the income that they earned or the wealth that they accumulated, and the type of occupation that you hold, your income. When people talk about equality of opportunity, they typically have relative mobility in mind. They're thinking about the relative chances of entering a particular occupation or a particular income decile, depending on where your parents were located in the inequality system.
In a purely open society, the social and economic status of your parents would have very little bearing on your own social and economic position. Put differently, in an open society, your position in life is not determined by the fortuitous or disadvantaged circumstances of your birth. Rather, than determined by your own talents, your own capabilities, and your own effort.
For many people in the US, extreme poverty and extreme riches are not in themselves problematic. What really matters is that the competition for riches is fair and that everyone, no matter how much money their parents made or how much wealth their parents accrued, has an equal chance to win. This is, of course, at the heart of the American dream.
So how well does America live up to this dream, when we look at relative mobility? Turns out not very well. Of children born into families in the bottom quintile, that is in the bottom 20% of income, 43% will actually stay in that bottom income quintile. 70% will stay in the bottom two quintiles, and only 4% will make it up to the top income quintile. Of children born into families in the top income quintile, the pattern is nearly the reverse. 40% will stay in the top income quintile, 63% will stay in one of the top two, and only 8% will fall to the bottom.
Occupations, too, can be inherited across generations. In the US today, the child of a professional is nearly 10 times more likely to become a professional than a child of a service-sector worker. The child of a professor is more likely to become a professor than to become a doctor or lawyer or nurse or any other occupation.
My own mobility story is precisely this boring. Both of my parents were professors, although they were in ornithology and field biology, so the family joke is that I actually experienced downward mobility because I can't tell one little brown bird from another. Oh, look, a brown bird. It's brown and a bird.
These averages mask important differences across groups. One of the great paradoxes of mobility in America is that there is more relative mobility among African-Americans than there is among whites. However, there is a catch. This is because there is much more downward mobility out of the black middle class than that of the white middle class. African-Americans in the middle class are, for some reason, less able to pass on opportunities and advantages to their children than white middle class parents. There is more social fluidity among African-Americans, but it's hardly the stuff of which American dreams are made.
Immigrants, too, present another paradox. The wages of first-generation immigrants are low, relative to non-immigrants. Second-generation immigrants tend to do better, in terms of income and wages, than their parents did. This is what you'd expect from the standard assimilation story. However, with education, it's a slightly different story.
Immigrants who come to the United States as children and go through much of their schooling here outperform, on average, their American-born peers, despite the linguistic and cultural barriers that put them at an initial disadvantage. This is often explained as a result of a selection effect. The immigrants who come to the United States often lack financial resources, but they have exceptional ambition and energy to overcome the barriers of language and culture.
However, because of the financial situation of their parents, they are more likely to settle in high-poverty neighborhoods with worse schools, with fewer opportunities outside of school. Their children assimilate, but downward.
In America, the idea is not only that we're the land of opportunity, but we're the land of exceptional opportunity. Turns out America isn't particularly exceptional, either, when it comes to equality of opportunity. Although there's quite a lot of absolute mobility in the United States-- at least there was-- relative mobility is just about average, compared to other advanced industrialized nations. Right about the same as the United Kingdom, a little bit higher than Italy, a lot lower than the Scandinavian countries.
Income mobility, too, is relatively low in the United States. A 2013 study by scholars at the Russell Sage Foundation showed that income mobility in US is lower than any other European country, except Italy and Great Britain. And it's about a third as mobile as Denmark. When you're actually thinking about income mobility, America has about the same level of relative income mobility as Pakistan.
There's also a little bit of an issue in that the amount of income mobility that we see in a society is tied to the amount of overall inequality that there is in that society, in terms of income-- a phenomenon that Alan Krueger, who is a graduate of Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, called the Great Gatsby curve. If there's a silver lining to research on relative mobility, it's that it seems to be relatively stable. So over the last 30 or 40 years, persistence in the income-inequality structure has been relatively stable.
So why isn't there more income and occupational mobility in the United States? Why is it that children of wealthier or higher-earning or more educated parents are so much more likely to become highly educated themselves? I want to talk very briefly to introduce four factors, then turn the mic over to Kendra.
So one factor is financial capital. Economic resources in the family allow parents to make greater financial investments in their children's educational opportunities, whether it's purchasing a house in a neighborhood with good schools or paying tuition at a private school. Financial resources can also be passed along directly, as when the son or daughter inherits the family business or practice or the family fortune.
Children from different socioeconomic backgrounds also acquire quite different amounts and kinds of cultural capital, the language and the way of thinking and the cultural knowledge and the interactional skills that prepare them to succeed in the education system and in the labor market.
In one of my research projects, I've been trying to understand how and why high-school and college-age youth make educational decisions that are so consequential for their career outcomes, such as the decision of whether or not to enroll in college and what to major in when they get there. This project has actually been a collaborative effort with colleagues at Cornell, including two students.
We analyzed a nationally representative survey of high school students in the class of 2004 and followed them until 2012. And we coded up the verbatim responses that these students gave to a question that asked about what they wanted to do at age 30. What were their occupational plans at age 30? There were about 15,000 students. There were about three waves of data that we tracked out. And we coded up all these verbatim responses to occupational plans.
It sounds very tedious, and in some sense it was. It had its moments. My favorite was a young man who indicated on his survey that he wanted to be an "obstetician", spelled incorrectly. But he very kindly explained what he meant by that in the margins. And he said, this is somebody who fits people for eyeglasses. And I was [INAUDIBLE] he's going to be in a little bit of a shock, his first obstetrics class.
What we learned, though, is that young adults from high-income families are more likely to be able to articulate an occupational plan. They're more likely to plan to answer an occupation that requires a college degree. But they're also more likely to have accurate knowledge about how much education they need in order to meet their particular occupational goals. And you can think about this as a form of cultural knowledge that kids from relatively advantaged backgrounds learn in the family, in socialization in the schools, from their peers, and so forth.
A third factor that helps to explain the link between parents' and children's class position is social networks. Children who grow up in advantaged families tend to have parents who have better social networks, more likely to be tied to higher-income people who are in better occupations. That helps them as they grow up. They're also more likely to have friends who assume that they're going to college. So their peer networks matter, as well, in terms of your mobility chances.
And then the final factor that we know is important for creating equality of opportunity and also creating immobility is human capital. And this is simply the idea that children learn different amounts of education and other sorts of very tangible skills, their productivity potential, if you will, that helps them when they enter the labor market themselves.
Obviously, education is the critical role in thinking about equality of opportunity. So what I want to do now is turn over the floor to Kendra Bischoff, who's going to tell us more about the promises and challenges of education in fostering equality of opportunity. Kendra completed her PhD from Stanford and is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology.
She's done truly path-breaking research that looks at income segregation in the United States, the extent to which relatively wealthy families and poorer families are located in the same neighborhoods. It's actually shown that income segregation has been increasing over time. And she's also working on a new project that looks at how schools foster civic engagement among America's youth. Kendra?
KENDRA BISCHOFF: Thank you, Kim. It's great to be here talking to all of you about such an important topic today and to celebrate Charter Day. Thank you for sharing your Saturday morning with us.
Education has always been important mechanism in the process of social and economic mobility. And a great deal of social science research has focused on the causes and consequences of unequal schooling and unequal educational attainment. There are many reasons to care about this topic, but perhaps most salient is that educational inequalities and especially inequality of opportunity do harm to the American ideal that education is the primary mechanism through which inequalities at birth might be rectified.
In this talk, I'm going to present some basic facts about educational inequality in the United States and then discuss some possible causes of these inequalities and finish up on a positive note with some findings from social science research that hopefully can help us lead to more equal educational outcomes.
So what do we know about educational inequality in the United States? We know a lot, but we're constantly learning more, with the increase in the amount of data we have and sophisticated techniques for parsing out causes and effects. There are many dimensions about which we could care about educational inequality, but two in particular I think have distinct social, political, and historical importance. And that's race and class.
So in this first graph that I put together just using current population-survey data from the US government-- if you just look at the solid lines, those are high school graduation rates from 1970 to 2014. The gray line is for white adults. The purple line is for black adults. And the pink line is for Hispanic adults. And what you'll see is that there's a general upward trend. So all groups are experiencing increases in high school graduation rates over the last 45 years or so.
But what you'll also notice is that there are still very big gaps, especially among Hispanic adults. Now, that's due in part to immigration and lack of opportunities in the birth countries of many immigrants. But if you actually flip it and look at high school dropout rates, those rates are also highest for Hispanic adults or children, and those are people who actually have attended high school in the United States. And that's at 15%.
The dash lines are college graduation rates, four-year college graduation rates, and the same colors correspond to the same race ethnic groups. And you'll also see that there are gaps that exist. Here, you'll see that white adults have a distinct advantage. In 2014, 32% of white adults held a four-year degree, as compared to 22% of African-American adults and 15% of Hispanic adults.
In this next graph, we look at college completion rates by income quartile. So what we have here is two cohorts of adults. The blue dashed line is a cohort that was born in the early '60s, and the red solid line is a cohort that was born in the early '80s. So when this graph was made, the people in the red line were in their early 30s, and the people in the blue dashed line were in their early 50s.
So the thing to notice here, again, is that there have been increases at every income quartile. So this lowest quartile, the red solid line, is above the blue line, and so we know that more people from that income quartile are getting a college degree in later years than they were in earlier years. And we also see that at every quartile.
But what you'll also notice is that there are big gaps. So whereas in the most recent quartile, only 9% of people who are born in the lowest 25% of income distribution received a college degree, 54% of those that were born into the top 25% received a college degree. So that's a very big gap. And what you'll also notice is that the change, it's become actually more unequal and not more equal. So only a 4-percentage-point change is seen here in the lowest quartile, but we see an 18-percentage-point increase at the highest. So what we see is that this expansion of higher education has been unequally distributed among income groups.
So what about achievement gaps? This is from the research of Sean Reardon, and what it shows is trends in income gaps, white, black income-- I'm sorry, trends in test-score gaps. The solid lines are between the highest and the lowest income groups, and the dashed lines is the black-white test-score gap. So what you want to take away from this is that, while the black-white test-score gap is still large and definitely a concern, the income gap has actually surpassed it. And when we say the income gap, we're looking at the extremes here. It's children born into the bottom 10% of the income distribution, versus those in the top 10%.
So historically, we've paid a great deal of attention to the black-white gap, and for good reason, and it's something that we should continue to pay attention to. But this evidence suggests that income-achievement gap should also be at the center of our concern, as we move forward.
Academic achievement is certainly an important function of schooling. And with the large increase in achievement data produced by the accountability era, we now have a better sense of where inequalities exist, not just nationally, but also within school districts and also within individual schools. However, schools are social, and they're socializing institutions. And they do more than just teach academic skills.
Although schools are now widely believed to serve as vehicles for individual credentialing, the original mission behind public schools was largely collective and civic. The civic role of schooling is arguably as important now as it ever has been. And given the primacy of civic ends in public schools, it's surprising that so little is known about the way in which educational contexts affect youth civic engagement and the role that schools might play in exacerbating or ameliorating civic gaps, both in adolescence, but also in adulthood, where disparities can contribute to unequal political voice and political power.
No national data exist on this topic, but using a case-study format, as Kim mentioned, I am currently engaged in a research project that examines the civic gap in schools and explores the role that school context plays in affecting students' civic engagement.
So why should we care about educational equality? Well, I think the first reason is that the four-year degree is increasingly the gatekeeper to a middle-class life in this country. We can debate what it means to be middle class, but most would agree that it entails earning enough to support your family; having access to medical care and health insurance; which historically has been linked to occupation, heavily linked to occupation in our country; living in a safe neighborhood and owning a car if you need one, for work or for childcare.
And the current trends that I've just shown you point to a continued gap in access to this middle-class life, based on the luck of birth-- something that is fundamentally contradictory to the American dream and the narrative of upward mobility.
The second reason is a demographic one. This simple graph shows that more and more children are now identified as low-income among our public-school population. So this is just over the past-- this is just a 10-year period. And we see an 11-percentage-point increase in children who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch in schools, which is a proxy for low-income status.
If we look at data from the census, which is not school-based, but where we can get sort of a re-tabulation of data into school boundaries, the rate of poverty among public school children increased from 17% to 23% in 2011, meaning that nearly one-quarter of all of our K through 12 public school students are impoverished.
We might also wonder whether poverty is concentrated in certain schools and whether different groups of students are exposed to differential contexts of poverty. 43% of African-American school children and [INAUDIBLE] children attend schools that have free and reduced-price lunch rates greater than 75%, when only 7% of white students attend similarly disadvantaged schools.
And finally, this graph shows a more dramatic change occurring in terms of the racial ethnic makeup of the US public-school population, which is becoming increasingly diverse. The far left bar is from 1995. This fourth bar-- oops. Sorry about that. [LAUGHS] This fourth bar is 2011, and these are projections.
And so what you'll see is that the bars are becoming more colors as you go to the right-- and you can see the key on the bottom-- meaning that the percentage of children in schools is rapidly changing. In 1995, 65% of all school children were white, and that number is projected to decline to 46% by 2021. In particular, the school-age Hispanic population has been rapidly growing, increasing from 14% in 1995 to a projected 30% in 2021.
So I presented some basic facts about unequal educational outcomes. And I've highlighted the changing demographic composition of America's youth, which makes these patterns and trends in inequality all the more pressing. Formal education and the credentials it confers is the focus of most research on educational causes and remedies of inequality. Public schooling holds the promise of correcting for inequalities at birth. But as a social institution, it can also reflect the structural inequalities that shape our social world.
In my mind, we are constantly trying to reform the education system to reflect the ideals of this country and to be a more just and ethical place than the society that surrounds it. As social scientists, we are interested in understanding the pathways to these unequal educational outcomes from early childhood through college and even post-graduate education.
When we think about how educational inequalities arise, we must acknowledge a variety of institutional mechanisms, such as schools, neighborhoods, and the family, and also how these institutions interact with government policies. All of these factors contribute to the intergenerational transmission of advantage and disadvantage, and under-gird the mobility patterns described by Professor Weeden.
There are far too many causes of educational inequality to be covered in this talk, so I'm going to touch on one pathway that reflects my own research interests, which is socioeconomic segregation. And when I use the term segregation, I don't mean government-imposed segregation. I simply am referring to the de facto residential patterns that characterize this country.
My research with Sean Reardon documents the increasing spatial separation of the rich and poor and links this increasing spatial separation to the large increases in income inequality that we've experienced since the 1970s. In this work, we find that the percentage of families living in affluent neighborhoods more than doubled, from 7% to 15%, over the period from 1970 to 2009. Similarly, the percentage of families living in poor neighborhoods more than doubled, from 8 to 18%, over that same time period. So put this together, and we see that one-third of all families in 2009 lived in economically polarized communities.
We believe that another important finding from our work is that the isolation of the rich has actually consistently been greater than the isolation of the poor over the past four decades. Although much of the scholarly and policy discussion about the effects of segregation and neighborhood conditions focuses on the isolation of poor families in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage, it's also important to consider the implications of the substantial and growing isolation of high-income families. The increasing geographic isolation of affluent families means that a significant proportion of society's resources are concentrated in a smaller and smaller number of communities.
So why might this matter for educational outcomes? Well, income segregation brings with it the segregation of people, meaning the segregation of educational attainment, political capital, and occupational prestige. In addition, income segregation might lead to the unequal distribution of collective resources, such as high-quality schools and public parks, and/or public hazards, such as pollution and crime.
In turn, the unequal distribution of these resources is likely transformed into unequal educational outcomes. Moreover, it is the children who generally have the most resources at home who'd reside in the neighborhoods with the best public resources, creating a rich-gets-richer effect. Although there's still much to be learned about the effects of income segregation, it is one potential contributor to the increasing test-score gaps between high and low-income children that I showed you before.
Just as a side note, my focus on economic segregation is not to suggest that racial segregation is no longer a problem. In fact, a slow re-segregation of American schools has been occurring over the past 25 years, and maybe in places that we least expect it. In 2011, 51% of African-American students in the Northeast attended schools where students of color made up 90% to 100% of the student body. And this is up from 43% in 1968.
So it's easy to get discouraged by the many facts and figures documenting unequal home environments, unequal educational opportunities, and inequality of outcomes. And no one intervention is going to close these achievement gaps. Schools don't operate in a vacuum to seriously address educational inequality, and multiple institutional pathways must be pursued. Although social scientists are very good at documenting inequality, we are also interested in solutions.
I'm going to conclude by just very briefly highlighting a few promising findings that hopefully will move us closer to the reality of the American dream.
First, teachers matter a lot. While this may seem obvious to everyone, since you all presumably spent some time in school, it's difficult to actually measure the effective teachers net of what students bring to school and other school attributes. In a number of papers using quite sophisticated research designs, Raj Chetty, an economist at Harvard, and colleagues show that the quality of one's kindergarten teacher has lasting and consequential effects on adult earnings, and that students who have highly effective teachers are more likely to go to college, as well as experience other positive social outcomes.
Second, school practices can matter. In a large scale experiment, the Houston public schools, Roland Fryer, another economist at Harvard, finds that injecting some charter-school practices into public schools, such as an increase in instructional time and high-dosage tutoring, had positive effects on students' math achievement.
Third, social-psychological interventions can create lasting effects. In a review of randomized experiments that target students' thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about school, Yeager and Walton argue that these interventions can actually lead to large academic gains, not because they actually improve academic skills, but because they help students believe in their ability to improve their performance and their value in school.
And finally, many colleges and universities are implementing programs and policies that target low-income students, such as more generous financial aid packages and better methods of recruiting students from disadvantaged communities. One such program, Posse, help selective universities identify and recruit promising students from under-represented groups. An admitted cohort of 10 students from the same city begin college together, thereby simultaneously helping to diversify our best colleges and universities, and also providing these students with a built-in support system. Cornell became a Posse partner in 2012, and we welcomed a Posse cohort from Chicago in the fall of 2013.
Thank you very much. Next, we are going to hear from Peter Enns, who is an associate professor of government at Cornell. Peter's work focuses on public opinion and representation. And he is the co-editor of the book Who Gets Represented.
PETER ENNS: Thanks, Kendra. I should mention, when Kim Weeden, who we heard from first, asked me if I would serve on this panel, I said, of course. I looked at the time, Saturday 9:00 AM, and I envisioned a handful of us sitting around a table, drinking coffee, chatting, eating bagels. And then it turns out we're on a stage. There there's stadium seating and no coffee and no bagels.
PETER ENNS: But it's a privilege and honor to be here this morning, a privilege and honor to work at Cornell as a professor in the Department of Government. And I believe it's vitally important that we reflect on the American dream.
My thinking regarding the American dream first crossed paths with Cornell University in 1998. At that time, I was teaching high school in urban Baltimore, through a program called Teach For America. How does that experience relate to the American dream? The high school with more than 2000 students was overcrowded, yet between 9th grade and 12th grade, the dropout rate was 75%. So the school and the school's budget depended on three out of four students dropping out. In my view, that's not the American dream.
How does that experience connect to Cornell? During my first year in Baltimore, two recent Cornell alumni called me. To be honest-- a little bit ashamed to admit this-- at that time, I didn't even know Cornell was in the Ivy League. But these alumni called me, Chris and Mike, and they told me they were doing well financially, they were living in San Francisco, and they wanted to give back to society. And they were starting a foundation.
And they got my number from another Cornell graduate, Michelle, who was working with Teach For America. She put Mike and Chris in touch with me, and they asked me to work with-- there was, at this high school, one other Teach for America teacher at this high school.
And so they put us two, and they asked me to work with her to identify students in this high school who we thought could benefit from Cornell's summer college for high school juniors. And so their foundation funded these students to come from Baltimore, to go from Baltimore to Cornell for the summer, fully funded them for their Cornell summer college experience.
One of the success stories was a student who, after that experience, had graduated from this high school in Baltimore, then went on to Johns Hopkins, then medical school. And that student's now a doctor. So you might say my first experience with Cornell was alumni who were working to help students in urban Baltimore achieve the American dream.
And I should mention, the other Teach for America teacher at the high school who they said I needed to work with to identify these students to send to Cornell for the summer, she became my wife. So thank you, Cornell.
PETER ENNS: Now, fast forward to today. I've transitioned from teaching in Baltimore to teaching at Cornell. There was a dissertation in between. My research focuses on public opinion and political representation. And I'd like to briefly share how I think some of this research relates to the idea of equality of opportunity, an important aspect of the American dream. Kim mentioned that it seems that the public is losing faith in the American dream and the potential for equal opportunity. So I'd like to share one statistic that helps quantify this in a slightly different way.
A recent public-opinion survey indicated that 40% of Americans believe that students from low-income backgrounds rarely or never have the same chance of succeeding in life as students from middle and upper-income backgrounds. Another 44% of the public responded that low-income students only sometimes have the same chance of success. The most optimistic category, very often, only received 16% of . responses.
I mentioned these statistics for two reasons. First, although most Americans have not had my experience teaching in urban Baltimore, there seems to be a strong appreciation of inequities of opportunity in this country. The second reason I focus on this statistic is its source. It does not come from the New York Times public-opinion polls. These data are not from the Pew Research Center. It comes from Travis [? Girdhari, ?] who is one of my current students this semester, here at Cornell.
The university courses program at Cornell has allowed Jonathan Schuldt, a professor in the Department of Communication, and myself to co-teach a course where the students design a public-opinion survey, then through Cornell's Survey Research Institute, they phone nationally representative sample to collect the data, and then we teach them how to analyze these data.
All questions come directly from the students. And these survey questions ask about-- they ask the American public about attitudes toward music, toward sports, international affairs, public policy, and issues related to the American dream. I believe it's survey questions like Travis's that help us further understand public perceptions about the equality of opportunity in this country or the lack of equality of opportunity.
My own research often examines the public's views toward government. There tends to be broad public support for equal opportunity, and in survey data, broad support for policies that are likely to enhance equal opportunity. These are policies like spending more on public education, expanding public pre-K, and providing better health care to children in need.
Yet my research also shows that overall support for these types of policies that would likely increase equality of opportunity has declined since the 1960s. Whether we look at support for redistribution, support for helping those in need, support for expanding social programs-- public support has declined. Furthermore, this public support has declined in every state. And if we analyzed public opinion, doesn't matter whether we look at high-income respondents or low-income respondents. Public support has declined.
Social policy preference, no matter where we look, these preferences have become more conservative. And in many ways, that's a perplexing finding. Think about what Kendra talked about, of these over-time shifts. We might actually have expected public support to increase. Inequality has risen during this period, and we know from survey data that the public is aware that inequality has increased, and the public thinks this is a bad thing.
Additionally, despite the prominence of the ideal of the American dream, we know from survey questions like Travis's that the public understands that equal opportunity is not the norm. Why, then, is support for government action declining? There's a lot of potential answers. And these answers lead to even more questions.
Trust in government has also been on the decline. Does this declining trust in government help explain the public shift away from government action? If so, why is trust in government declining? Is it because of public frustration with gridlock in Congress? If so, why do we observe the most polarized party positions in the history of Congress, in this time period? Maybe government isn't the best way to expand opportunity and the American dream. If that's the case, the public's declining support for government action could reflect an informed and well-calculated consideration.
Another possible factor that could help explain declining public support for policies that advance equal opportunity relates to what politicians say about government and public policy. My collaborators and I are currently conducting what I believe to be the largest investigation ever into what members of Congress say, why they say what they say, and how this speech influences public attitudes toward government.
With support from Cornell and the Russell Sage Foundation, we've obtained digital PDFs of the entire Congressional record. This is the official record of the proceedings and debates of the US Congress through its entire history. It's a massive amount of information, in total a terabyte of data. I actually had to get a new computer to fit the data. [LAUGHS]
We have worked with computer scientists to write computer code that scans these digital PDFs, identifies when a member of Congress speaks, and then extracts the relevant text into a database, identifying the member of Congress, the date, whether the member was in the House or the Senate. In the database, we also identify the political party of the member of Congress, his or her state or district, and a host of other information.
Now, here's where I think things really get cool. Starting in 1980, we're able to link each member of Congress with campaign donation from the Federal Election Commission. So we know how much each member received in campaign donations, how much came from organized interests such as labor unions or business interests, and if the donation was more than $200, we even have information on which individuals gave money to whom. Don't worry we'll keep that all anonymous.
With these data, we can track whether what members of Congress say changes as how much money they receive changes, and whether they change what they talk about when different groups give them more or less money.
Here's an example of what we have found. When a member of Congress receives more money than in the previous election cycle from labor unions, that member's more likely to mention things in Congress when debating or on the Congressional floor, relating to inequality or redistribution.
When donations from business groups increase, words like "inflation" and "deficit" tend to increase. Now, maybe that's not surprising, given who's given these donations. But to us, this is a really important result, because keep in mind, in our analysis, we're looking at the same members of Congress, representing the same districts. The only thing changing in the statistical analysis is where they're getting their campaign donations from. So it appears that shifting funding sources actually interest what members of Congress talk about. We know from other research that what members of Congress talk about influences the political agenda and, by definition, what the public hears from its political leaders.
As researchers, we believe understanding how campaign donations influence what politicians say is going to be crucial to understanding why public opinion has changed the way it has. By influencing political speech, those who give the most to campaigns may actually influence the public's policy preferences by changing what their political leaders emphasize.
In sum, when it comes to campaign donations and what members of Congress have to say, our research shows that the old saying is true. Money talks. Thank you.
PETER ENNS: Now, I didn't have any slides for that talk, but we did prepare one slide. Let me see if I can get this to work. Got to go the right way here. There we go. What I want to do now is introduce Adrian Palma, who we'll hear from next. He's a Cornell alumnus, class of 2013. And Adrian majored in Asian studies and co-founded the Cornell Development Relief Education for Alien Minors Team. That's the dream team.
He is an entrepreneur and previously worked in Washington, DC, as a paralegal for Fragomen, the world's top corporate immigration law firm, and as a policy associate for fwd.us, where he advocated and lobbied for comprehensive immigration reform. Adrian, you're up.
ADRIAN PALMA: Hello. Thank you, everyone, and thank you to all the panelists for your very insightful research and just thoughts and discussions on the American dream, which is something that has always impacted my life. And so I wanted to talk to you guys a little bit about my experience growing up as an undocumented immigrant here in the United States, and my ability to come to Cornell, the way the higher education impacted in my American dream, and just the way I kind of see the American dream, nowadays, after my Cornell experience and after going to the real world.
So I was born in [SPANISH] Chihuahua, Mexico. So I'm Mexican. And I grew up in El Paso, Texas, right across the border, right across the El Juarez, which is known as the most dangerous city in the world, but El Paso, ironically, is the safest city in the United States.
So my family actually was pretty well off in Mexico before we immigrated. But after a financial crisis hit in the early 1990s in Mexico, my dad decided to immigrate to the United States to give us a better life, an opportunity. And my older brother, myself, and my mother came a couple of years after to El Paso, Texas.
So ever since I arrived to the United States, my parents really instilled in me the value of an education, and education as a way of achieving American dream one day. So they would tell me, hey, if you get good grades, if you excel academically, you're going to be able to gain legal status one day here in the United States. And you're going to be able to achieve your American dream.
So my older brother and I really just went into that and really excelled academically. We learned English. We were at the top of our class. We saw education as a way to upward mobility in society and to be able to achieve the American dream. So we excelled academically. When it came time to apply to go to college, that's when the barriers hit a little bit more, without access to financial aid, for example, access to resources of people that knew how to guide undocumented students through the process.
To me, I really just wanted to find a way to break the odds, to really succeed. And I remember in our high school counselor's office, they had a list of all these scholarships that people were getting. I just remember thinking I need to be on that list. It doesn't matter what my immigration status is. I need to be on that list.
So I did my research. I had very good mentors that kind of helped guide me in the right direction. And fortunately, Cornell was able to accept me. And they were able to offer me financial aid, as well, to be able to come to Cornell and be able to study here. So I came into the Ivy League world very lost and confused. It was a very different world from El Paso, Texas.
But Cornell, really, and the access to opportunity-- to higher education, I mean-- that opportunity has really been instrumental to my life, because it's kind of like what panelists were mentioning, that immigrant children sometimes outperform some of their peers. But lack of opportunity and guidance kind of deters us sometimes in that process.
So Cornell gave me that opportunity to be here and to really find myself, to develop my passions. I was able to really develop my passion for immigration law, immigration policy. I majored in Asian studies, where I was able to compare migration policy within China to immigration policy here in the United States, specifically migration from Mexico to the US. So I thank Cornell for that. I was able to really delve myself into social activism on campus, just activism in general.
So for me, Cornell and the opportunity to get a higher education really was instrumental in defining what the American dream is to me. I used to think it was like an upward mobility, socioeconomic upward mobility. But to me, really, the American dream-- and this was defined through the opportunity to meet individuals from all walks of life-- the American dream to me means the ability to know who you yourself are, what you want to fight for, and what you stand for.
And for me, through the work that I currently do, I'm as a social entrepreneur. I'm also helping expand my father's business. That's what motivates me. The fact that Cornell gave me that opportunity to really find what motivates me, what I stand for, who I want to fight for, as well, which is the rights of everyone. And without Cornell, I wouldn't have had access to that opportunity.
Something that I think we should all engage in conversation is how can we help others, as well, create their own American dream, because I think we all have different ideas of what the American dream is. So how can we, as individuals, and how can like institutions such as Cornell, through expanded financial aid, for example, for undocumented students or minorities, as an example, how can we all help each other try to figure out what our American dream is and contribute to society? Because the honest reality is that there's so much potential out there.
And if Cornell hadn't given me the opportunity, I don't know where I would be at right now. So the reason I have my family up there is just because their American dream really inspired my American dream. And without them, honestly, I wouldn't be standing here today. So thank you all very much.
KIM WEEDEN: Wonderful. Thank you, Adrian. So I'm going to let Dominique sweat a little bit more. What I wanted to do was to talk a little bit about one of the ways, just one of the ways, one of the many ways that Cornell is helping students learn about inequality and think about what the American dream means to them, which I think is a very good way of putting it, that Adrian said.
So I did mention at the very beginning when I was talking about who I am, I do direct the Center for the Study of Inequality. I want to talk you a little bit through about what that means and what that institution does here at Cornell.
So it was founded in 2004 to be the intellectual home for research and teaching on inequality. It's funded through the College of Arts and Sciences and housed in the Department of Sociology and directed by yours truly, as I mentioned. It includes among its core affiliates faculty from all over campus, though, including other units within the Arts and Sciences College, but also ILR, CALS, the College of Human Ecology, and so forth.
We don't fund research directly, but we do offer programming that is intended to help faculty and graduate students and undergraduate students think about and do research, conduct research, and help to make the connections between scholars that makes interdisciplinary research, such as the research that Peter talked about, possible at all.
One of the flagship programs of the Center for the Study of Inequality is the minor in inequality studies. It's an interdisciplinary minor that's open to any student at Cornell. The minor offers a way for undergraduates to really think about and to shape a curriculum surrounding the issues of inequality today and to tailor that curriculum to their particular interest. Somebody might be interested in immigration. Somebody else might be interested in racial and ethnic minorities and how inequality plays out for different racial groups.
The minor requires six courses. I teach one of the required courses in the minor, an overview of the sociological and economic, political science, psychological research on inequality. My colleague, Anna Haskins, teaches a capstone course in the minor, which was originally developed under a very generous grant from the Atlantic Foundation and has since become a university course.
And students from the minor also have to choose four electives, and they're mandatory that they choose from three different departments. And the idea here is to make sure that they get some sort of breadth to their training in inequality studies and to think about inequality from a variety of different approaches.
The minor has been very popular. Since the program began, we've graduated more than 500 students. Its popularity is growing. Right at the moment, we have 104 students, I believe. And that number has been rising every year, I think, reflecting the interest out there in the public in issues surrounding equality of opportunity.
We also do help to provide undergraduates with research experience, hands-on research experience, thinking about inequality and learning more and contributing to public knowledge about inequality. I mentioned a project that I was working on earlier, looking at educational decision-making. I had the honor of working with seven undergraduate students on that project.
When we hired the seven students, we actually gave them the choice. They could call themselves the Seven Colors of the Rainbow, the Seven Deadly Sins, or the Seven Dwarfs. They chose the Seven Dwarfs. Unfortunately, we did have to fire Dopey at one point.
But most of the students I've worked with at Cornell have been extremely, extremely talented. One of the students published two coauthored papers with faculty on the project and is now at Harvard's graduate program in sociology. One's working for the Urban institute, which is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center in DC. Another went to Michigan Law School on a full-ride scholarship. One spent two years in management consulting and then decided to go into a business program at Stanford University. Two went into the nonprofit and social entrepreneurship sectors.
And then another student I worked with actually on a different project spent two years in the Peace Corps after leaving Cornell. She ended up in Africa, where she became fascinated by the major form of inequality in that world, which was water. So she became so interested in inequalities in access to water that she then went on to get a degree in water resource management.
So I'm delighted today to have with us another alumni of Cornell, Dominique Corley. Dominique graduated last year with a minor in inequality studies and a double major in sociology and linguistics. She's currently working in the social-service sector in Syracuse to mentor in inner-city youth and to provide them with a safe place to grow and to learn. Her senior honor's thesis won two, not one, but two, best thesis awards from Cornell, including one from the Center for the Study of Inequality. So please join me in welcoming Dominique.
DOMINIQUE CORLEY: So thank you all. And thank you for waiting so patiently. The good thing about going last is the walk from here to here is so short, there was no way I was going to trip and fall and embarrass myself before I got up here. So thank you for waiting. And as she mentioned, my name is Dominique. I go by Dommy. And I graduated last year. So a year ago, I was sitting in these seats and had no idea that I would be on this side of the stage. But here I am.
So I double-majored in sociology and linguistics, which is an interesting mix. And I also did the inequality studies minor. And to begin my talk about the American dream, I want to reiterate what many of my co-panelists have been saying about the American dream centering on this idea of equality of opportunity and that every person, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, etc., have this equal chance at achieving the American dream.
And so we see that idea written in many of our laws and even in our Constitution. But in reality, there's much evidence to show that this idea is not what we're seeing in society, that there are certain barriers for some people at achieving their American dream. And in the past, these things might have been a result of sexism or racism or different -isms, and I'm not saying that we're completely free of that now.
But I think that there is room to say that some of these disparities are actually a result of factors that we haven't really been able to identify, things that block certain individuals' opportunities to achieve the American dream. But we just don't know what those factors are.
And in my studies of linguistics and sociology, and also taking classes in the inequality studies minor, I got this idea that language, and specifically dialect-- so not necessarily a foreign language, but a dialect of English-- could be a barrier that certain individuals are facing in achieving their American dream.
And so in linguistics, my focus language wasn't a language. It was a dialect. And the dialect is called Ebonics, or more academically known as African-American vernacular English. But I personally really like the name Ebonics, because it really describes what African-American English is. Ebonics comes from the two words "ebony" and "phonics", "ebony" meaning black, and "phonics" meaning sound. So Ebonics means black speech, basically.
And the dialect sort of was created out of West African languages during the enslavement of Africans in this country. This language, African-American-- or this dialect, sorry-- African-American English, sort of arose out of this need for these enslaved Africans to express West African concepts using English words.
And as we know, enslaved Africans were not taught standard English when they were being enslaved. So this dialect has really survived and persisted, over the years, and is now spoken in predominantly African-American communities and spoken primarily by lower-income African-Americans.
And so I was learning about Ebonics and how different it is from standard English, even though it is still considered a dialect of English. And so that was really interesting to me, that it can differ so greatly just within one language, and that at times, Ebonics speakers and standard-English speakers can't even understand each other between the dialects.
So with that in mind, I was learning in my sociology and inequality studies classes about some of the disparities in education, in the legal system, even in health care and health outcomes, between African-Americans and white Americans. And I wondered if language or dialect played a role at all in these disparities.
So I conducted a senior thesis called "African-American English and Racial Inequality in the Courtroom," and it was centered around this idea that speaking a minority dialect of nonstandard English can affect your legal outcomes. And I was able to take the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case and look at the key witness, Rachel Jeantel. Her testimony was in Ebonics. And I was able to translate it into-- "translate" it into standard English and see if the jurors' outcomes were different, based on the dialect.
And my research concluded that, yes, when you speak Ebonics, you have the worst legal outcomes. And it's not necessarily because people are outwardly discriminatory to Ebonics speakers, but that there are literally these language barriers, communication gaps, between standard-English speakers and nonstandard-English speakers.
And as well, in the education system, I was able to do a project in the Mellon May's undergraduate fellowship on speaking Ebonics in the education system and how students actually need to be taught in Ebonics to have more equal outcomes, and that Ebonics needs to be used as a tool to teach standard English to these nonstandard-English-speaking students.
And as we know, society in the United States, the language of our education system, legal system, health care system, is standard English. So we really need to be teaching these Ebonics speakers standard English. But we need to use Ebonics as a tool to do this, in order to sort of help Ebonics speakers to have equal opportunities and chances to achieve the American dream.
Another thing that I think will help with this is just educating the general population about what Ebonics is. I know when I'm working with my high school students in the inner city, and I'm telling them about Ebonics, and they speak Ebonics, they don't even know what Ebonics is. So even in educating Ebonics speakers, as well as standard-English speakers, about what Ebonics is-- it's not slang. It's not just bad English. It's actually almost a language of its own that is super important and cultural to this group.
So thanks for listening. And I believe we're going to go into a Q&A now. Sorry. Jumping the gun a little bit.
KIM WEEDEN: I just want to close by pointing out four ways that Cornell is really contributing to thinking about the American dream. You've heard some of them before, but just as a way of wrapping up. First and most visibly, Cornell has an extraordinary commitment to need-blind admissions and also to providing financial aid to the talented young women and men who make it into the very competitive admissions process.
So I just wanted to give you some numbers that I got earlier this week. 53% of Cornell freshmen received need-based financial aid. 45% received Cornell-based grant aid. The average need-based grant for entering freshmen is $36,000, up from $34,000 two years ago. Cornell spent $234 million on grant [INAUDIBLE] financial aid every year.
The debt load-- now, Cornell students do come out with debt-- but the debt load for those who borrow to fund their education is far less than the national average. So the mean debt load for Cornell students is $21,400, compared to a national average for private nonprofit universities of about $30,000. $21,000 is a lot of money, but just to put that in perspective, the gap between the median earnings of a college-educated worker and a high-school-educated worker is about $17,000. So you can think about, it takes a little over a year and a half to pay off that $21,000 debt. This is an enormous, enormous, enormous commitment that financial aid, or that Cornell was making to financial aid into the American dreams of its students.
The bad news, of course, is that Cornell can't reach everybody. And we also know from some of the research that Kendra was talking about that very few students from disadvantaged family backgrounds actually have the test scores and the prior learning and the academic knowledge and so forth, the cultural capital, to be able to make it through Cornell's very competitive process.
There's a couple of other ways that Cornell is contributing to the American dream. Again, these, I think, become obvious when you think about the panel so far. First of all, it's training the next generation of leaders, like Dominique, like Adrian, like many, many other students who-- many of you are actually sitting now in the audience today. This is an extraordinarily important contribution that Cornell makes to the American dream itself.
The third contribution is the research mission of the university and the excellence of the social sciences at Cornell. Professor Bischoff, Enns, and I are only three of many faculty at Cornell who are trying to understand the causes of consequences of inequality of opportunity, trying to understand what can be done about it, trying to identify the crucial policy levers that can help mitigate barriers to opportunity and so forth.
A lot of progress has been made over the last decade, even when inequality scholarship, I think, really began to take off, particularly in economics. Sociologists have been whining about inequality for 50 or 60 years. We still have a lot of work to do. We still need to know more about the mechanisms. Why is it that there is such a strong link between the position of the parents and the outcomes of the children?
The fourth way, though, that I think that Cornell can help revitalize the American dream is to really help frame the national debate about equality of opportunity. I've been very much encouraged by all the coverage that inequality scholarship is getting in the press these days. But I think it's too easy to become discouraged, as a consumer of all that knowledge, by factoids, or to become confused by the barrage of studies this way and that, pointing out this form of inequality and that form of inequality.
One of the many skills that we try to teach our Cornell students is how to make sense of this morass of social statistics, to think about the bigger picture, and to understand that the success and failure of individuals does not take place in a vacuum, as Kendra mentioned. Institutions matter, both in positive ways and negative ways. And institutions are social constructions, and they can be changed.
We are all thought leaders in our own way. And it's our job as faculty, as administrators, as students, as alumni, and as trustees to help our fellow citizens understand how the reality of mobility and opportunity in America can be better aligned with the dream of American opportunity.
So I'm now going to open up the floor to questions. There are a couple of microphones, or you can raise your hands if you'd like. I'll field the questions but then direct them to somebody else who can actually answer them. Yes, sir, do you want to-- I'm sorry. The mic ended up here. I'll come to you next.
SPEAKER 1: Hi. Just a couple of questions. One, instead of framing the debate as income inequality, does it make sense to frame the debate as, how do you get incomes of low-to-middle income people higher, so that it's not a competition between two groups of people? And I always feel America's still an aspirational society. So I'm curious whether you think we should move the debate in that direction.
And then the second question was this whole view on education from different groups of people. And maybe this is not a politically correct statement, but I was just wondering if any analysis has been done on performance by different ethnic groups, in different-- even in poor-income neighborhoods, as whether, for example, Asian children from poor backgrounds, have they done better than Hispanic children or black children?
KIM WEEDEN: So I'll go ahead and field the first question, then turn the second question over to Kendra. The first question was about why are we framing the debate in terms of income inequality and not in terms of how we can raise the lower incomes. Is that a good characterization of the question? I think that's right.
And I think that there's actually a lot of issues surrounding what is the difference between inequality of opportunity and inequality of outcomes. We talk a lot, and the American dream is built on this idea of equality of opportunity, but you think about it equality of opportunity for the next generation can really only come about if there was equality of outcomes in the prior generation.
It becomes complex because I think that there are very few political groups within the US who would advocate for complete equality of income. We know that some level of income inequality helps to motivate people. But it's a question of how much there should be. And I think that that's a very important component of the debate.
Maybe we shouldn't be asking, well, how could we make sure that everybody gets the same chance to move up this ever-growing ladder that's just stretching apart, but really, well, how can we shrink the rungs of a ladder, but shrink it from the bottom to push it up? And I think that's a very good point and that certainly should be part of the conversation.
KENDRA BISCHOFF: So in terms of your question about performance by group, the US government, post-No-Child-Left-Behind increased tremendously the amount of data they collected. So there's debates about testing and how much we should be doing and reforms that are now potentially trying to move away from judging schools based on test scores. But we've been doing this now for 15 years, pretty intensively.
One thing that came out of that that I think was positive was that it did allow us to shine a light on disparities. So because schools are required to report test scores by race-ethnic group, as well as by low-income status and disability if there's a sufficient number of students in the school that fit in these categories, it has allowed us to sort of unmask, I would say, some of the disparities that were happening within schools. And I think we used to think a lot about between schools and in between districts, which are also important. But we now also have information and have some pressure on schools to pay attention to all the different kinds of students within their building
In terms of country of origin, the government doesn't collect data on that. There are studies that are done, where people sort of take tests that are low-stakes tests. It's not really the kinds of tests that kids take in schools. But mostly it's just the major race-ethnic groups that we have the most data on.
KIM WEEDEN: Sir, you had a question?
SPEAKER 2: Yes. Recently, George Will wrote a column in the Ithaca Journal saying that, obviously, in his opinion-- and one could assume that means from the conservative right, a lot of people might have the same opinion-- that universities could save an awful lot of money by eliminating all courses that mention-- all courses, all positions, all studies, all research projects-- whatever-- that even use the words "inequality," "diversity," "sustainability," et cetera. Clearly, you people-- and probably most of us don't agree with that. How does one counter that argument? His position must be that these things are unimportant, unnecessary, and a total waste of time. And if a lot of people think that way, we've got a problem.
KIM WEEDEN: Yeah. Yeah. No.
I did read that. I did read that op-ed from George Will. I was actually very proud that three courses in the Department of Sociology are on that list.
SPEAKER 1: Oh, he also--
KIM WEEDEN: Including my own. It was great.
SPEAKER 1: He also mentioned-- he also mentioned that Cornell had over 400 courses that--
KIM WEEDEN: Yes.
SPEAKER 1: --would be included.
KIM WEEDEN: Yes. So he did mention that Cornell had-- it was 403 courses that are listed with the Atkinson Center for Sustainable Futures. I actually went and looked at that list. I didn't realize I was on-- my course was on that list. It was.
Again, there were three inequality courses that were on that list, but the other-- some of the other classes on that list were concrete design. Now, how that isn't kind of something that might be sort of important to think about? So there were a lot of courses from engineering that actually ended up on that "I Hate This" list of George Will's as well.
I mean, I think how do you counteract that? I think that that's certainly some of the survey research, and Peter could probably answer this question with more precise figures than I can. A lot of the survey research shows that George Will is in a distinct minority. Right? So it was something like 87% of-- maybe you should give the statistic.
Most Americans believe that inequality is a problem. It is an issue, and most Americans are aware that inequality is rising. So I mean, I think, in some sense, George Will is howling at the moon a little bit in that type of column.
But I also think that it's important to engage. Right? I think that one of the sort of downfalls of contemporary American politics is that there's not a sense to engage the ideas in a real way. So we need to take George Will seriously even though secretly we might be proud to be on his "I Hate You" list.
Oh, my goodness. OK. Thank you.
SPEAKER 2: I have a mic-- I have the microphone here, so I-- is it on?
SPEAKER 3: Yes.
SPEAKER 2: It was interesting that no one has commented, to the best of my recollection, on job availability in the various categories and how important that is as we'd look forward in the future to meeting the American dream.
KIM WEEDEN: Yeah. That's absolutely right. One of the stories of the decline in absolute mobility in the US is that the economy is simply not creating as many professional and managerial jobs for kids to move up into. Right?
We know that a lot of the jobs that are being created are either at the very top. Right? So there are a lot of extraordinarily really good high-tech jobs that are being created, but numerically, most of them are not. Right? So there's been this howling-- hollowing, "howling"?-- hollowing out of the middle class in the US and that's about jobs creation.
My sense is that people are thinking about it, but we don't have the answers yet. I mean, it's certainly the case that a lot of the companies that are now making sort of the most important companies in the US, world-- the Apples of the world-- employ very, very few workers compared to the prior generation-- the Kodaks and so forth of the world. Right? So even the companies that are driving the conversation are employing fewer workers than in prior eras and manufacturer areas.
It's an extremely important piece of the puzzle. Absolutely. And that's part of the challenge. I've actually been invited with-- the Kauffman Foundation is putting together a panel this summer down in Florida. I can't wait.
Yeah. I need it after this winter in Ithaca. Right?
To look at how entrepreneurship can address some of these issues. Is that the case that we're moving to sort of a very polarized economic structure in which there's a few people who are getting all the riches because they're in financial service as a tech and then everybody else? And their point was that there's only so many gardeners and massage therapists that the economy can employ.
So I mean, I think this is certainly a central issue in American political thought on today, and we need to take it extraordinarily seriously. Absolutely. It's not all just income. I'm not sure who was next? Who has a mic?
SPEAKER 4: Yeah. Is this thing on?
KIM WEEDEN: Yes.
SPEAKER 4: First of all, I'd like to say it's proud to be a Cornellian when you hear some of this stuff, particularly if you're a slightly to the left of center. And some of the questions I was going to ask have already been asked. But is anybody looking at taxation policy as affecting the availability of income distribution, redistribution? I could also talk about Citizens United. But that-- is anybody looking at that as a either impediment or to assist the development of equality and also the economic circumstances that allow for a free flow of funds as opposed to when you have economic downturns and how that affects things?
KIM WEEDEN: Peter, do you want to address the question about the taxation policy?
PETER ENNS: Yeah. Sure. Taxation policy is not directly under my sphere of expertise but clearly an important issue. And especially if we look at federal income tax, marginal tax rates shifting over time make a huge variation over the last century and tax rates.
And what the implications that holds both for the economy and both for the distribution of wealth are very large and some really interesting and fascinating academic debates. Right? If we could, as policy-- if policymakers could agree, if as academics we could agree, these decisions would all be very easy. But some people are talking about the sort of tax rates and what that means for the economy and the creation of jobs, and other people saying, "Well, if there's not a high enough tax, then there's not-- the people at the top aren't doing enough."
Another interesting component with tax rates is the sales tax, right, and how that affects people and individuals who-- all their income goes to consumption. Sales tax effects them. Bob Frank, an economist at Cornell, talks a lot about the implications of-- what if there was a consumption tax? Right?
You could envision a luxury tax, and what would that do for consumption? What would that do for incentivizing what people buy? So just fascinating intellectual arguments with very concrete and important implications. So I think pointing to that, I think pointing to job opportunities and really interesting questions in terms of what do we teach our students, what do we recommend to policymakers, and how that affects the future and the American dream in this country.
SPEAKER 5: Hi. My question is for the two recent graduates. How have you seen your Cornell education come into play in terms of tackling this inequality and achieving the American dream?
ADRIAN PALMA: Yeah. Well, I think that-- I mean, for me, my Cornell education, it kind of ties into your question about the importance of these kind of programs. I mean, it gives you that perspective of the realities of the world. Like as an immigrant, it gives you the perspective of why people immigrate, for example-- the historical context, the political context of it. So I think that kind of knowledge that you can take from the courses that you gain here you can easily apply it once you graduate to try to understand how economies work and how they impact minorities, how they impact immigrants, how they impact the country as a whole. And for me, at least in my working experience, that's been the most impactful part of my Cornell education.
DOMINIQUE CORLEY: And for me, since I graduated, I moved to the inner city of Syracuse-- just a little over an hour from here. And I've been working with inner city kids. And from going from Cornell to there, I actually lived in a homeless shelter for three months. And seeing how big the gap really is and being able to go from sort of one extreme to another really showed me that there is a lot that needs to be done with inequality and that, from being from Cornell, we really do-- we really are the ones that need to be working towards impacting change. And having those two experiences so close together just really showed me how kind of stark those disparities really are, and being able to experience both sides for myself sort of motivates me more to want to make a change.
ALEJANDRA REESE: Hello. Hi. My name Alejandra Reese, and I'm a Cornell class of 2009. And like Adrian, I grew up as an undocumented immigrant in the US.
And for my family, having graduated from college-- the first one in my family to graduate from college moreso from Cornell was a significant milestone in my family's American dream. And the question that I had was, in regards to enforcement, the US has the highest population of incarcerated people in the world. And so I'm wondering, if in these studies about inequality, there is any look at enforcements policies particularly as it relates to drug enforcement and also like detention of immigrants?
PETER ENNS: Yeah. I--
KIM WEEDEN: Peter also doubles as somebody who studies mass incarceration, so I'm going to send this one over to him.
PETER ENNS: Sure. I can speak to that. A critical issue you're-- absolutely right.
The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. That wasn't always the case. Actually, in the '40s and '50s, the US incarceration rate was roughly between Finland and Denmark's. Right?
So this has been a major shift as a result of major policy changes with massive implications because not only does it have an effect on the high proportion of people incarcerated-- that's not distributed equally. Right? So these tend to overwhelmingly on the individuals from low income communities, on racial minority communities. And then the impact upon being released from prison is very high. Right?
Because some-- you're not eligible for certain employment, in terms of federal education funding, and also lots of people released from prison with very high debt loads. Right? So maybe can't get a job and have debt that accrued while being locked up, so huge, huge implications.
And just a side note there related back to Cornell and the American dream, Cornell has a Prison Education Program where Cornell faculty and graduate students teach Cornell classes in local prisons, including Auburn Correctional Facility, which is a maximum facility prison in Auburn. So sort of both-- my interests touch on both sort of that aspect of the Cornell's Prison Education Program and the research aspect. So thank you for bringing that up.
SPEAKER 6: I'm a physics professor here, and I wanted to ask a question that sort of relates more to being a citizen of the world and since I'm a Roman Catholic. So-- and also a longtime resident of New York state. So around here, we've seen the complete collapse of lots of industrial jobs when I think of Cortland and Syracuse, I mean-- and Endicott. I mean, just outrageous collapse of really good jobs that went elsewhere.
But on the other hand, I think about NAFTA and the whole-- I promised at NAFTA was we were going to connect our economy with that of Mexico in a way that would not make a family want to come up to a God-forsaken place like upstate New York when they could live in a warm comfortable environment with their family in Mexico. So the question is: Where did this-- did this all go wrong? Was NAFTA something that was sold for wrong reasons?
And also, I would ask the question: How are we doing in the world? Our colleagues in Cortland are suffering and in Syracuse, but how about those guys in China? What's the global inequality situation? How's the global human dream?
KIM WEEDEN: Yeah. Just very quickly, I know there are quite a few people who have questions. It's an excellent, excellent question, excellent point. If you look at trends in global inequality, it's actually been decreasing quite-- it decreased quite rapidly for a while, and it's actually started to level off and even jump up again.
The reason is China. Right? If you weight each person as one in any kind of model, you're going to see a enormous effect of China on global income inequality levels. And of course, with China's movement to capitalism, it did improve the situation and reduce inequality for a while. But now, the--
KIM WEEDEN: --head again. Right? So you're seeing this again, this stretching out. And whither goes China, so goes the numbers on global income inequality.
In terms of position in the US-- or of the US in the global landscape, if you look at OECD countries, the US has more income inequality than virtually any other of these countries. And I talked a little bit about some of the differences in mobility. We don't have--
KIM WEEDEN: --mobility either even though we have this ethos of--
KIM WEEDEN: --the opportunity, then part of the American dream. But it is-- maybe Peter can say something more about NAFTA. It's not something that I've studied at length, but it is certainly an issue. There's the build-a-higher-wall strategy, and then there's the make-life-better-so-that-there's-not-quite-the-supply strategy for immigration.
There's also-- and so while I'm speaking of the left, there's a open borders movement as well that is essentially saying-- why do we even have borders? Why should we privilege people who were born in one part of the world as opposed to another and what their opportunities are? So I think that there's a whole bunch of issues wrapped up into that.
Certainly, NAFTA is one. The Pacific trade agreement is shaping up to be another NAFTA in many ways, and it's a very complicated issue, a very important issue. I don't-- Peter, do you want to say anything more about NAFTA or is this--
PETER ENNS: Yeah. No. I mean, I could refer you afterwards to a couple colleagues in the government department who would be the sort of ideal sort of folks on that issue.
ADRIAN PALMA: I have a comment on NAFTA. I mean, in terms of like immigration I guess, working at a corporate immigration firm that process like high-scaled visas for immigrants, even you can see like a disparity there in a sense--
DOMINIQUE CORLEY: He said, "I can't hear you."
ADRIAN PALMA: Oh. Working like at an immigration-- at a corporate immigration firm in DC that process high-scaled immigration visas, I mean, you even see like a disparity in the way that like NAFTA is supposed to kind of promote a fair kind of like movement of people, but it doesn't. I mean, for example, like we had Canadian citizens that were able to come really easily through NAFTA immigration policies versus Mexican citizens. That had a very tedious process. So I think there are many different issues that are combined together, and I think it's important to kind of analyze each one distinctly. Yeah.
KIM WEEDEN: OK. So I know some of you still have questions. If you-- we're kind of behind our time, and I think that there's another group that's coming into this room. If you want to ask your question, I encourage you to contact me-- Kim Weeden. Kw74@cornell.edu. You can also send an email to email@example.com.
I just want to, as we're all filing out here, to thank all of our panelists, Clara Elpi who put this together. It's just amazing.
KIM WEEDEN: Thank you.
KIM WEEDEN: And thank you all for coming. Have a great day.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about this request.
The "American Dream" is a core feature of the American ethos yet many challenges to the dream persist. Cornell professors and recent alumni discuss equality of opportunity and how it can be improved. Part of Cornell's Sesquicentennial celebration, April 24-27, 2015.
Panelists: Kim Weeden, Robert S. Harrison Director of the Institute for the Social Sciences and director of the Center for the Study of Inequality; Peter Enns, associate professor of government; Kendra Bischoff, assistant professor of sociology; Adrian Palma '13, co-founder of Cornell DREAM Team; and Dominique Corley '14, linguistics and sociology, minor in inequality studies.