Monday, December 12, 2011

Polls Provide Data But Data Requires Interpretation

This poll looks at the differences between Americans in several income groups. The top 1% is better educated than the bottom 99% to the surprise of nobody. Conservatives use results like this to argue that we have a meritocracy that is defined by education and cognitive ability. The top 1% is better educated and, therefore, is rewarded by the market for its superior skills.

A more careful look at the data leads to another interpretation. The top 1% looks identical to the income group below it in education level, and it looks very similar to the group that earns at least $150,000. In other words, educational attainment does not distinguish between upper middle class Americans and the top 1%. The rapid growth in income going to the top 1%, to the exclusion of all other income groups, cannot be explained by education level. Other factors are at work.

The other problem that jumps out at us, if we ignore the silly comparison of the top 1% with the bottom 99%, is the problem of social mobility. Education level does create entry barriers to a variety of occupations that might provide a middle class standard of living. Americans in the lowest economic levels are also under educated. Very few will escape from the income group that they were born into as long as they remain under educated.

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