What Obama and Romney aren't talking about: America's class divide
I am the proud son of a hardworking milkman. I also have a PhD from Yale. Therein lies a story of class mobility, an issue that is crucial for America's future and that ought to be part of the presidential campaign. Yet neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney will address class head on.
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Both sides portray education reform as a key to opportunity. Democrats press for more spending and Republicans (and also the White House) stress greater accountability. But inflation-adjusted spending per pupil has doubled since 1970, and the No Child Left Behind testing regime has been in place for a decade. And yet the education achievement gap between rich and poor children keeps growing.Skip to next paragraph
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Some, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, have advocated school choice programs as a way to give poorer families an alternative to troubled public schools, and as a spur to encourage those schools to improve. But even the most enthusiastic supporters of school choice cannot claim that it is a cure-all.
As for out-of-wedlock births, Democrats frequently call for greater access to contraception, while Republicans favor tighter restrictions on welfare. The evidence suggests that neither approach would accomplish much, though Brookings economist Isabel Sawhill writes: “The government has a limited role to play.” She advocates government support for local programs and nonprofit organizations working to prevent teen pregnancy.
The shortage of simple solutions is one reason why politicians avoid the issue of social class. Moreover, the two presidential candidates – both prep-school graduates with Harvard law degrees – have little in common with the less-well-educated people that Murray is describing.
In the 2008 race, then-Senator Obama famously dismissed small-town Pennsylvanians as “bitter” people who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” According to journalist Thomas Edsall, the 2012 Obama campaign is planning to ignore this type in favor of a coalition of racial minorities and upper-income professionals. (The campaign denies the report.)
Mr. Romney is not exactly a street kid, either: He grew up rich and got a lot richer at Bain Capital. His efforts at reaching across classes can be cringemaking. “I have some great friends who are NASCAR team owners,” he said back in February.
But even though answers are elusive and the candidates are uncomfortable with the issue, there is still no excuse to avoid the class divide. They need to start talking frankly about the causes and consequences of inequality – and about what government can and cannot do to address it.
As Lyndon Johnson asked when an aide warned him that civil rights would be a tough sell: What’s the presidency for?
John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College and coauthor of "American Government and Politics: Deliberation, Democracy, and Citizenship."