"We want to be in Sweden, all subgroups want to be in Sweden, if people could distribute the wealth any way they wanted," Norton said. "Everyone is OK with rich and poor, but almost no one prefers the current state of the world." But that agreement in a controlled study doesn't translate to easy political fixes, Norton said. "We had the perhaps naïve idea that we could show people the reality, and their attitudes and behavior would change," Norton said. "But I'm a behavioral scientist, and we know that information alone is often not enough. It's not an information problem, it's an action problem." It's not surprising that liberals say there's too much inequality, or that the very poor believe the gap between the rich and themselves is too big. But Norton said most conservatives and the wealthy also agree that the gap is too big. The problem, he said, is that the different camps disagree on solutions. A minimum wage hike to some is a direct way to get money in people's pockets. To others, though, it's a way to get someone's job taken away. Another problem, he said, is that many people distrust the government — which many blame for the dichotomy in the first place — to fix it. Without meaningful action, American inequality will continue to be felt not just in the economic arena, but in many other facets of American life, including criminal justice, health and education, among others. When Norton surveyed HBS alumni on the subject as part of the School's 2015 Survey on U.S. Competitiveness , many respondents pointed toward education as both a cause of inequality and a potential solution.
That's a point of view that Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean James Ryan understands. The ideal of American education is equal quality for all, but it has never been achieved, Ryan said in an interview, and understanding why that is true, and how to change it, is the core mission of the School he leads. "Talent is evenly spread throughout our country. Opportunity is not," Ryan said. "Right now, there exists an almost ironclad link between a child's ZIP code and her chances of success." Some progress has been made. Minority educational achievement has improved over the past 40 years, and achievement gaps have narrowed some between minorities and whites, and between women and men, according to the four-year report card from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But gaps persist. The 44-point reading gap that existed between black and white 9-year-olds in 1971 had narrowed by 2012, but still stood at 23 points, according to the report. That story is mirrored in higher education, with some gains but persistent gaps. The proportion of associate's, bachelor's, master's, and doctorate degrees awarded to blacks and Hispanics all increased, though progress slowed the higher the degree, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In the 2009-10 academic year, blacks earned 14 percent of all associate's degrees, on a par with their 13.2 percent representation in the population. But they earned only 10 percent of bachelor's degrees, 12 percent of master's, and 7.4 percent of doctorates.
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- Spring '11