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Time for low-income affirmative action

Robert Reich

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

KAI RYSSDAL: There was a big poverty report out from the Census Bureau this week. We learned another 816,000 Americans fell into poverty last year, including nearly half a million children. And that, after you adjust for inflation, the median household income's now $2,000 less than it was at the beginning of the decade.

Those would seem to be pretty good talking points for Democrats as their convention in Denver moves into its third day today. This week we've asked some prominent policy types in the party to give us an issue the Dems should embrace, but haven't so far.

Commentator Robert Reich has one. He says Democrats have acknowledged the obstacles racial minorities face in hiring and education. Now, he says, they ought to look at the economically disadvantaged, too.


ROBERT REICH: Here's an idea Democrats probably won't endorse but should: Affirmative action based on family income.

The latest data from the Census tell us that inequality keeps growing. Most American families are now earning less in real terms than they did in 2000. More are in poverty. Meanwhile, the super-rich are taking home a larger slice of the economic pie than they have in 80 years.

At the same time, it's become harder for lower-income people to move upward. With wider inequality, the distance poor kids -- whatever their color -- has to climb to reach the upper-middle class is much longer. And the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs has removed many rungs in the middle of the income ladder, making that climb even harder.

In the new economy, education and connections mean more. Increasingly, lower-income people without adequate education and connections are competing for a smaller and smaller slice of the economic pie.

If there was ever a good time to offer affirmative action based on family income -- giving kids from lower income families extra consideration in college admissions, for example -- it's now.

Despite the fact that one of the great social achievements of the last quarter century is the emergence of a black middle and professional class, people of color are still over-represented among the poor and working class. The advantage of income-based affirmative action is it would address many of the same issues as race-based affirmative action, but it would also address the needs of low-income whites.

And income-based affirmative action would not create tensions between lower-income whites who don't benefit from race-based affirmative action and blacks who do. Demagogues would have a harder time using race to stoke the fires of economic resentment.

Finally, income-based affirmative action would lead to more economic diversity on our college campuses. And more economic diversity is a key to reversing America's trend toward widening inequality.

Income-based affirmative action makes sense. Democrats, as well as Republicans, should consider it.

RYSSDAL: Robert Reich is professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. You won't see him at the convention, but you ought to know he's endorsed Barack Obama.

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I appreciate Reich's efforts to address the needs of Americans under the poverty line. Although, I would have to ask what the difference is between Income-based Affirmative Action and financial aid in higher education? By asking this question, the core values of Affirmative Action can be established. In a time where the median income of a nuclear family is only slightly above the poverty line, we should look closely at what is causing "the socioeconomic divisions that plague our nation." The issue is by nature systemic, and starts at a child's admission to elementary school. Those families that I mentioned cannot afford to send their children to private elementary schools. Most public schools are dysfunctional and do not meet the needs of their students as individuals. Therefore, the human capital cultivated in the students who graduate from a public school are not near the level of those who graduated from a better and more expensive elementary education. This rudimentary division is then widened during their secondary education as their test scores grow farther apart. By the time students from the lower class apply to college, their past has created an applicant that does not reflect their potential merit. When this applicant is viewed against applicants who have been given more academic attention in the past, the playing field is not level and extra attention should be given to those who were originally at a economic disadvantage. This theory is also crucial for qualifying for financial aid. A first generation college applicant probably dealt with more systemic disadvantages than an applicant who recently underwent economic difficulties due to the fall of our economy. Furthermore, the fact that economic disadvantages begin at the beginning of the child's education means that Affirmative Action should be directed at all facets of education. The burden should not be left for higher education to fix.

While I agree with earlier commenters that governments shouldn't be in the business of ensuring equal outcomes, "affirmative action" in the form of preferential education admissions and scholarships to low-income applicants and students is something many conservatives, and even libertarians like myself, have been advocating for years.

Mr. Reich takes a cheap an inaccurate shot by implying that conservatives would throw a tantrum over targeting programs toward economically disadvantaged individuals and families, when that's what most of us have been pushing for while the Democrats have stubbornly (and insultingly) insisted that such programs can't work and race-based affirmative action is the only thing keeping minorities' (oh, but only *some* minorities') heads above water.

At the end of the program Kai informs us that Robert is backing Obama. Shocking! Since most of what Mr. Reich advocates borders on socialism, it is really not that much of a stretch that he would, in essence extol the virtues of take from the rich and give to everyone else. So if my child can go to Brown or Lehigh becuase we are poor, where is my incentive to work hard in my life and save for my children's education?

Now this is a policy that I think merits endorsement. Both for its economic soundness and its potential for addressing the socioeconomic divisions that plague our nation.

Robert Reich forgot to point out the best part of the plan - it is self- limiting; when no one is economically disadvantaged, the program is finished.

Sure, as Michael Gibbs points out, administering such a plan would be impossibly complex, and certain to be unfair in some way. However if he is really worried about the likelihood that a future Einstein will not get into to a good school, how about all the academically less qualified offspring of the financially successful and well-connected that displace future Einsteins at schools like Harvard and Yale?

It is ironic to hear those who benefit from such "affirmative action for the wealthy" argue against affirmative action for anyone else, as though they succeeded as a result of their own merit.

Professor Robert Reich finishes his commentary on income-based affirmative action with the assertion that it "makes sense." Nothing could be further from the truth. What Reich proposes is not merely at attempt at 'equal opportunity' but 'equal results', something that even communist governments have been unable to achieve, much less a purportedly "free" society. Given the tremendous diversity found among humanity, even a perfectly level playing field will not produce level results and it would be a tragic mistake to strive for such a goal because it ultimately pulls down those that are over-achievers to the level of the under-achievers. Would Einstein have been able to attend university under such a system? Would the financially-challenged child that took his place change our view of the universe?

I cannot even fathom the logistics of implementing such a scheme. Would every job interview involve displaying one's most recent tax return to the prospective employer so that person can determine the applicant's relative hire-ability? Moreover, the federal government has no Constitutional authority to require such actions, so a Constitutional amendment would almost certainly be required to make it legal.

You cannot end discrimination by discriminating. Institutionalizing discrimination harms those who do not fit whatever social, racial or financial demographic lines are drawn and is no more fair than the original injustice. I'm afraid it's back to the drawing board, professor.

Your theory concerning affirmative action for families makes more sense than anything I've heard in years. It provides a equality that transcends race and addresses the problems of income--which is always the foundation of envy and aggression. Hopefully, someone will listen to your ideas and Congress will readdress the problems of more families falling below the poverty level with a program that reflects your straight forward, simple and effective plan. Perhaps the time is ripe for a new approach. Thanks for your many timely possibilities that address the issues of inequities. Jay Pierce

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