America is currently facing up to a whole range of inequalities, with most focus on two of these: a skewed justice system – highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement — and an equally skewed distribution of healthcare – highlighted by the COVID-19’s impact on minorities. But we have some basic inequalities that are much more pervasive.
Many Americans may never have to deal directly with the justice system, and some lucky few are so healthy that they may need a doctor or hospital only occasionally or at the end of life. But everyone needs to get an education, and everyone needs a place to live, both pursuits hard-wired with inequality.
And who you are – your circumstances in life, what you have been able to achieve, and what you pass along to your children – very much depends on two interrelated numbers: a single Supreme Court vote and your zip code.
Let’s start with schooling and the fact of the huge variability in the quality of public education, poor school systems producing less learning; a high dropout rates and fewer students graduating; less movement to higher education, limiting job opportunities and financial success; and most important of all, the erosion of individual self-worth.
The reason for these weaker schools? Like tracking everything else important to Americans, just follow the money . . . and the fact that American schools are funded primarily through property taxes, the level of schooling thereby directly tied to the wealth – or lack thereof – of the particular community.
This is simply fundamental, inarguable. The more money you have, the more money you can put into every aspect of your school system, from janitorial upkeep of the building to the quality of teachers to the school’s overall culture.
Simply put, you get what you can pay for.
The source of this funding inequality? — a 1973 Supreme Court ruling in the case of San Antonio Independent School District vs. Rodriquez, decided 5-4, the majority determined by a swing vote cast by Justice Lewis Powell, the newest member of the court.
Citing the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, the plaintiffs claimed a fundamental right to education, and that the use of property taxes created (here’s that “s” word again) “systemic” discrimination against the poor.
Nope, not so, the majority ruled, saying that the cited clause (paraphrasing here) does not require absolute equality or precisely equal advantages. But the disparities in financial support cited by the plaintiffs were not just a tad unequal.
The financial difference between two of the Texas school districts cited in the suit actually significantly increased during the four years it took to move from a lower court to the “Supremes”: a $310 per-pupil disparity from state/local support in 1968, to a $389 per-pupil disparity in1972.
Though some states have been forced to modify their support of schools to attempt greater equality, these effort have been patchwork and tepid. Thus, throughout America we have public education that is free to all — but locked in a system of financial segregation, driven further by those able to afford private schooling.
But the disparity in educational funding is simply the tip of the proverbial iceberg. This iceberg is huge. It consists of individual circumstances determined not just by the community you live in but the very specific area of that community: your zip code.
The research is clear. Different zip codes feature a whole range of disparities impacting those that are less wealthy, and going far beyond educational quality alone: less availability of basic day-to-day resources, longer distances to healthcare, higher levels of unemployment, inadequate housing — on and on, exacerbated by historical red lining and ongoing segregation.
The increasing gap between zip codes became even greater in the recovery from the “Great Recession” of 2008, according to a recent study by the Economic Innovation Group (EIG, Washington DC).
EIG said that with some economic recovery, life for those in the most distressed zip codes “looked much more like an ongoing downturn.” At the same time, those in wealthier zip codes were “in the midst of an economic boom. Zip codes mere miles apart occupy vastly different planes of community well-being — and few people are truly mobile between them.”
And EIG provides a succinct (and seriously depressing) summation concerning the level of your educational achievement and how much your spot on the map may have determined your financial status . . . and well-being.
“Geography,” it said, “is too often destiny.”