This session will address the question of what we mean by equality of opportunity and the ways that it can be measured. How can we distinguish unequal opportunities from unequal economic outcomes? To what extent do changes in intergenerational economic mobility capture changes in equality of economic opportunity? What other indicators measure equality of opportunity? How do various measures distinguish unequal opportunity from inequality of effort, innate aptitude, or other determinants of economic outcomes? Do different measures generally point in the same direction, with similar implications for policy? What are the trends in indicators of equality of opportunity, both in the United States and internationally?
Which subgroups of the U.S. population—designated by race, ethnicity, gender, family structure, wealth, or other characteristics—appear to be particularly vulnerable to a lack of economic opportunity? To what degree does poor access to economic advance- ment appear to reflect these groups' low incomes, or do additional barriers contribute substantially to some subgroups' limited opportunities? What does current research tell us about the mechanisms through which these barriers operate and the policies that might be effective in reducing them?
A growing body of research has examined the efficacy of policies aimed at lessening inequality of opportunity before children in the United States start school. This session will document the inequalities that often develop before children enter kindergarten. It will critically examine what is known about the potential effects of early childhood education and other policies aimed at children in their first five years of life, and estimate the potential of these programs for reducing aggregate inequality of opportunity. What are the impediments to implementing programs targeting young children? What would be the budgetary cost of expanding proven equal-opportunity programs targeting preschool-age children? To what extent would these costs be expected to be recouped over the longer run through increased tax revenue and reduced government expenditures?
What role does unequal access to quality education play in overall inequality of opportunity in the United States? At what level of education—primary, secondary, or post-secondary—is the problem most concentrated? To what extent is the problem primarily due to differences in students’ readiness to learn, and to what extent is it due to disparities in the educational effectiveness of schools that students attend? What policies would be most effective for addressing inequality in student readiness? What policies would be most effective in attenuating unequal access to quality schools? What is the potential for these policies to reduce aggregate inequality of opportunity? To what extent would the budgetary cost be recouped through increased future tax revenue and reduced government expenditures?
To what extent does the place where one lives determine one’s economic opportunities, both at any current age and later in life? How are differences in neighborhood characteristics—such as the presence of supportive institutions, access to public transportation and jobs, local unemployment rates and real income growth, in addition to local and state government taxing and spending policies—associated with unequal economic opportunity? How have efforts such as the Harlem Children’s Zone and Promise Neighborhoods informed our understanding of the role of neighborhoods and the potential interaction of neighborhood characteristics in perpetuating inequality of opportunity? What role does geographic mobility play in economic mobility? To what extent do these factors appear to be causal rather than endogenous proxies for possibly unobserved fundamental determinants of access to economic opportunity? What role can U.S. public policy play in addressing geographic impediments to economic opportunity?
Weak aggregate economic performance may worsen inequality of opportunity and unequal opportunity may weaken aggregate economic performance. Unequal economic opportunity often reflects market failure—investments with a high expected social return may not be undertaken, and as a result the nation’s human capital stock and economic output are depressed below their economically efficient levels. Protracted downturns in economic activity, such as the Great Recession and subsequent slow recovery, may increase the inequality of opportunity by reducing the incomes of families at the bottom of the income distribution more than those at the top. Hence, there may be a differential reduction in the ability of low-income families and communities to gain access to education and make other investments in human capital. This session will present quantitative estimates of the relationship between unequal economic opportunity and aggregate economic performance. It will also examine the relationship between unequal economic opportunity and the inequality of individual economic outcomes.
What Policies Should Be Adopted to Promote Equality of Opportunity?
Policymakers will be asked to synthesize the conference findings and present their views on what policy changes are desirable to address the problem of unequal economic opportunity in the United States and elsewhere.