Harvard University public policy professor Robert Putnam’s celebrated book of 2015, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, explores the forces driving America’s growing economic divide.
In response to Putnam’s book, TCF senior fellow Richard Kahlenberg has issued a new report, A New Era of Civil Rights: Proposals to Address the Economic Inequalities in Robert Putnam’s “Our Kids,” which calls on policymakers to address the forces fueling class inequality. In the report, Kahlenberg outlines several concrete policy solutions that can help to fight the stagnation of social mobility and expand civil rights protections for America’s poor and working-class people.
Below are Kahlenberg’s top eleven policy solutions for reversing the trend of increasing economic segregation in America:
1. Passing Anti-Exclusionary Zoning Legislation
Although the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made racial discrimination in housing illegal, residential segregation by both race and class remains a pervasive problem. Many municipalities currently employ exclusionary zoning policies (for example, minimum lot sizes) that restrict lower income people from purchasing homes in certain areas. These policies work to actively exclude low-income and working class families from entire neighborhoods and should be forbidden through legislation once and for all.
2. Expanding Inclusionary Zoning Policies
While eliminating exclusionary zoning practices is critical, developing inclusionary zoning policies would also help to bring equity and increased opportunity to lower income families. Inclusionary zoning programs are those where a developer must set aside a portion of new housing units for low- and moderate-income residents. In exchange, these developers receive a “density bonus” that allows him or her to develop a larger number of high-profit units that the area is zoned for. Creating more inclusionary zoning programs would help to incentivize zoning policies that benefit low-income and working-class families.
3. Reviving the Moving to Opportunity Program
Between 1994 and 1998, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Moving to Opportunity (MTO) program examined what happened when families living in high-poverty housing projects moved to lower-poverty neighborhoods. A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper published earlier this year found that children who participated in the program and moved to low-poverty neighborhoods prior to the age of thirteen had higher incomes and higher likelihoods of attending college as adults than their peers who had lacked the same opportunity in their youth. More MTO-like interventions could continue this positive pattern for low-income children across the country.
4. Increasing Socioeconomic Integration in Public Schools
Racial integration of public schools has become increasingly difficult in recent years, but few legal obstacles exist to the consideration of socioeconomic status of families for school assignment. This is good news for some eighty school districts who now employ socioeconomic integration plans to ensure that few to no students end up in high-poverty schools. We need more school programs nationwide that actively seek integrated schools and use polling data, effective marketing, attractive magnet school themes, and similar strategies to draw a broader economic mix of students to traditionally high-poverty schools.
5. Encouraging the Socioeconomic Integration of Charter Schools
Although many charters schools still have room for progress, many are becoming increasingly conscious of the need to have mixed-income student bodies. In their 2014 book A Smarter Charter, TCF’s Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potter profile nine charter schools that had a strong record of promoting diversity through either weighted enrollment lotteries or strategic location in mixed income neighborhoods. Their research found that student outcomes at all of these schools were promising and impressive. As charter schools continue grow in popularity, they have a unique opportunity to advance socioeconomic integration—and they should continue to employ strategies that are proven to do just that.
6. Promoting Mixed-income Early Childhood Education Programs
The need for universal pre-K programs is becoming an increasingly frequent part of our national policy discourse. Young children who participate in high-quality, mixed-income early childhood education programs have been shown to develop essential skills, such as receptive language, expressive language, and math learning. This is good news for both children and working parents, and we should continue to remain conscious of creating more mixed-income child care centers nationwide.
7. Implementing Class-based Affirmative Action in Colleges
While race-based affirmative action has opened the doors of elite institutions to black and Hispanic students, it has come under intense legal and political attack. In order to prepare for the possible end of racial admissions factors and to better address issues of economic inequality, universities should promote affirmative action for low income students. Rich kids currently outnumber poor kids 14:1 at selective colleges. Colleges can work to close this gap through a variety of ways, including establishing partnerships with disadvantaged schools, providing an admissions bump to low-income students, expanding financial aid budgets, designing percentage plans, or eliminating legacy preferences in admissions.
8. Strengthening Community Colleges
As America’s higher education system has grown increasingly stratified in recent years, there has been a decline in upper middle-class student enrollment at community colleges. With this change in demographic representation has come a similar decline in resources allocated to community colleges (as compared to four-year institutions). Community colleges could design attractive course offerings to attract more higher income students and help reduce this stratification. Additionally, funding should be awarded to schools based upon student needs, allowing community colleges the resources to invest in programs that best support students with the greatest needs.
9. Making Labor Organizing a Federal Civil Right
Although it is currently illegal to fire workers for unionizing under the National Labor Relations Act, penalties for employers that do so are incredibly weak and are often disregarded. In order to ensure the job and economic security of workers and ensure fairness in employment decisions, Congress should amend the Civil Rights Act to extend protections against discrimination for persons attempting to unionize.
10. Pushing for State and Municipal-level Efforts to Support Workers’ Rights
The need to make labor organizing a civil right is clear; however, it seems unlikely that legislation to do so would make much headway under the current Boehner-led House of Representatives. Instead, state and local governments should take their own steps to protect labor rights and build awareness and momentum for a time when a more worker-friendly Congress would be receptive to federal legislation that would finally give workers seeking to organize their proper place in the Civil Rights Act.
11. Taking Advantage of the Promise of Virtual Labor Organizing
The ability to join a labor union is the single largest unclaimed legal right to additional personal wealth in America today. In fact, the average nonunion worker could expect to accumulate an additional $551,000 in wealth by the time she retires simply by exercising her right to join a union. In our increasingly digital society, we at TCF have issued a call for a tool that would allow workers to use technology to their advantage when it comes to organizing and sharing their workplace grievances with employers.
Robert Putnam’s Our Kids brilliantly outlines the scope and nature of class-based challenges surrounding the areas of housing, K-12 education, higher education, and workers’ rights. If there’s one thing that Kahlenberg’s A New Era of Civil Rights makes clear, it’s that the best assurance of a great future for our kids is a new civil rights movement for poor and working class people that treats all of these areas seriously and comprehensively. Let these policy suggestions be the start of that movement.