Finding a Balance between Personal and Government Responsibility: It’s not Just about Paying Taxes

The media is full of commentary about Mitt Romney’s suggestion that people who do not pay income taxes are lacking in personal responsibility.

My view is that personal responsibility matters. In fact, Governor Romney has cited more than once a Brookings study (done with my colleague Ron Haskins). The study shows that if you do just three things: stay in school at least through high school, don’t have a child until you’re married and over 21, and work full-time, your chances of being poor are only 2 percent and your chances of joining the middle class are 74 percent.

We should expect and encourage this kind of behavior. It is necessary but it is not sufficient. The larger society, including government, has a role to play as well. Are children born to irresponsible parents to blame for their lack of opportunity? Are adults who can’t find a job during a recession at fault? Are the seriously disabled or the frail elderly supposed to fend for themselves?

There was a lot of talk at both the Republican and the Democratic conventions about the American Dream. The difference was that Republicans celebrated the Horatio Algers among us – the Mark Rubios who have pulled themselves up from modest beginnings. Democrats also lauded the upwardly mobile but with a recognition that a Pell Grant to go to a community college or free access to contraceptive services can make a difference.

In the end, neither party was very specific. New research being released by Brookings this week shows that 61 percent of today’s children and young adults can be expected to be middle class by middle age (an income of about $68,000 for a family of four in 2011). But there are large gaps by race, by gender, and by one’s circumstances at birth. A child born into the top income fifth is almost twice as likely to be middle class by middle age as one born into the bottom fifth. Girls do better than boys throughout childhood only to find their prospects diminished when they become adults. African Americans are behind on all indicators of success from an early age and never catch up to whites. Only a third of them can expect to be middle class by middle age.

On the other hand, our data indicate that poor children who stay on track throughout childhood are almost as likely as their more fortunate peers to achieve the Dream. The problem is that too few do. They are much less likely to be school ready at age 5, to achieve important academic and social competencies by age 11, to graduate from high school with good grades and without being convicted of a crime or having a baby as a teen. Would more of these children be successful if they studied hard and stayed out of trouble? Should some parents be doing more to help with homework, teach values, and monitor their children’s activities? Undoubtedly yes. But the evidence also suggests that if we provided more of these children a high quality preschool experience, put better teachers in the classroom, provided more (and more accessible) college aid to well-qualified students from low-income families and more technical training, some of these gaps could be reduced or even eliminated.

The gaps in opportunity are getting larger. Not only is income inequality increasing but so are inequalities in marriage rates, in educational achievements, and in who goes to college. A nation in which these opportunity-enhancing behaviors are, more than ever, associated with the random chance that a child will be born to privileged parents is not a healthy society.