Why do we tolerate inequality?

I’ve been thinking about that since I read a piece about education and inequality a few days ago. The headline read: “No Rich Child Left Behind,” and even the author, a professor at Stanford, admitted that is hardly news. We expect the rich to do better.

Of course, we also expect everyone else to do well enough to climb up the class ladder so that they or their children could be rich, too. That story line makes existing inequality OK.

In polls, Americans acknowledge that we have an economic-inequality problem, but even after a confidence-shattering recession and a cascade of data saying that class ladder isn’t what it used to be, we don’t seem inclined to do much about it.

Many reasons for that are more pronounced because ours is a diverse society with a history of discrimination.

Part of our reluctance to act is knowing that no two people are ever identical, so we don’t expect their lives to be the same. We have different talents and abilities, and luck and circumstances affect us in different measures.

Part of it is that as Americans we’re taught to believe each person is responsible for his own level or success. Initiative and hard work matter, but they aren’t enough by themselves to lift people over some barriers. We don’t like to admit that.

Part of it is that we believe some people are better than others and we treat them in ways that affect their life outcomes. Studies have found differences in wages among people of equally matched talent and work ethic based on height, weight, whether one wears glasses or not, and by the degree to which one is judged to be attractive. Lots of factors interfere with life outcomes.

The professor and author I mentioned, Sean F. Reardon, focused on the link between education and income. At all levels of education and by most of the measures we use, children and young adults from wealthy families perform better than children from middle-class or poor families, Reardon wrote in a piece for The New York Times last weekend.

That’s important, because education has been the primary path up the social and financial hierarchy, so upward mobility is affected by how well education serves that purpose. Statistics show the gap between the rich and everyone else is growing wider. It has gotten so wide since the 1980s that the difference between high-income and low-income children’s test scores is now greater than the gap between black and white children’s scores, Reardon said, and he noted the gap between Hispanic and non-Hispanic white children has narrowed, too.

A tolerance for inequality of any kind opens the door to more inequality because it dulls our sense of fairness. But the rich/poor gap isn’t so much about intentional barriers as it is about an escalation in preparedness.

Some children have enriching experiences that put them ahead from the start, and access to lots of help along the way. Parents who have the money have been rapidly increasing the amount they spend on boosting their children’s prospects.

Access to high-quality child care and preschool for low-income and middle-class children makes a big difference in closing those gaps, Reardon noted. As citizens and voters, we have to be willing to pay for those enhancements if we want a more equal society — and we should want that, because societies with lower levels of inequality tend to outperform similar societies that are less equal.

I should point out that since those racial gaps began closing, we’ve had a recession that set many black and Hispanic families back.

The day after Reardon’s piece ran, I read about a report from the Urban Institute that found the past five years have greatly widened the wealth gap between black and Hispanic families and non-Hispanic white families, reversing some of the gains made during the period Reardon looked at.

Sure, as Reardon said, it’s about class, but race and ethnicity have always been tools to sort people into economic and class silos. It is even harder to talk about those issues than it is to talk purely about class.

You may recall that course at The Center School that Seattle Public Schools shut down for a time, because one family was uncomfortable having their child exposed to the frank conversations that the class engaged in about race. We need to understand how race operates because it still affects people’s lives every day, being unaware of that just perpetuates the problem.

The Urban Institute study said white families earn $2 for every $1 that black or Hispanic families earn, and that has remained constant for the past 30 years. Reardon was talking about income in his article. What changed recently, the Urban Institute study said, is the relative wealth difference.

Hispanic and black families — many of whom had most of their wealth in their homes, often bought while prices were high — lost more than the average white family with a more diversified portfolio and more home equity. The report included some history and current discriminatory practices that explain most of the differences in wealth accumulation, but you learned about that in school, didn’t you?

The wealth gap also affects generation after generation, making it more damaging than a simple income gap. There are interventions that could help reduce those gaps, but they tend not to be popular (dropping the home-mortgage interest deduction, for instance).

In polls, a majority of Americans say we have a wealth-distribution problem, but most don’t trust the government to fix it.

We don’t need blind trust in the government, but we do need more trust in each other’s potential and worth. Most people would do better with a little help. As voters, we only need to support solutions that are proven to make a difference and to recommit ourselves to the idea that a more equal society would benefit all of us.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com