Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Income-based affirmative action

Former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich advocates income-based affirmative action. I agree with his suggestion:
Here's an idea Democrats probably won't endorse but should: Affirmative action based on family income.

The latest data from the Census tell us that inequality keeps growing. Most American families are now earning less in real terms than they did in 2000. More are in poverty. Meanwhile, the super-rich are taking home a larger slice of the economic pie than they have in 80 years.

At the same time, it's become harder for lower-income people to move upward. With wider inequality, the distance poor kids — whatever their color — has to climb to reach the upper-middle class is much longer. And the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs has removed many rungs in the middle of the income ladder, making that climb even harder.

In the new economy, education and connections mean more. Increasingly, lower-income people without adequate education and connections are competing for a smaller and smaller slice of the economic pie.

If there was ever a good time to offer affirmative action based on family income — giving kids from lower income families extra consideration in college admissions, for example — it's now.

Despite the fact that one of the great social achievements of the last quarter century is the emergence of a black middle and professional class, people of color are still over-represented among the poor and working class. The advantage of income-based affirmative action is it would address many of the same issues as race-based affirmative action, but it would also address the needs of low-income whites.

And income-based affirmative action would not create tensions between lower-income whites who don't benefit from race-based affirmative action and blacks who do. Demagogues would have a harder time using race to stoke the fires of economic resentment.

Finally, income-based affirmative action would lead to more economic diversity on our college campuses. And more economic diversity is a key to reversing America's trend toward widening inequality.

Income-based affirmative action makes sense. Democrats, as well as Republicans, should consider it.

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