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The Framework: Gates/Gaps/Gradients

The first element of the framework is Gates, a metaphor for how opportunity in America is increasingly determined by income, wealth, and socioeconomic status (SES), as well as by race/ethnicity. From birth to, say, age 25, individuals accumulate the human capital, broadly conceived, that will play a critical role in their adult outcomes. The dimensions of human capital include a variety of cognitive and noncognitive skills, as well as dispositions, experiences, and flexibility (see Keeley 2007; Pellegrino and Hilton 2012). At each stage of development, the gates represent access or obstacles to opportunities to add human capital, building on whatever potential individuals may have, as well as the human capital they already possess. For individuals born in higher strata (by income, SES, or other) the gates are mostly open, offering access to a multitude of opportunities. For individuals born in lower strata, the gates are mostly closed so that there are fewer opportunities to amass essential high-quality human capital at a developmentally appropriate stage (Fishkin 2014).

The use of the term “gates” is motivated by the gated communities that have sprung up over the last few decades and are perhaps the most visible aspect of the stratification of opportunity. Children born in such privileged communities have multiple opportunities to develop their human capital, while those born outside of them often have fewer.

However, stratification of opportunity goes far beyond these enclaves of privilege. According to some investigators, over the last few decades, residential segregation by income has remained fairly stable and by race/ethnicity has even declined slightly. Others argue that residential segregation by income has increased. All agree, however, that Blacks and Hispanics remain much more segregated than Whites and Asians (Rugh and Massey 2013; Bischoff and Reardon 2013). Neighborhood differences in income are, in turn, strongly associated with differences in private and public investments in children such as parental attention, school quality, the nature and extent of social networks, and so on (Bischoff and Reardon 2013). These and other factors largely determine which gates are open to some children—and closed to others.

Indeed, it is worth noting that as neighborhoods become more homogeneous with respect to income, so do children's peer groups (Ibid.). This homogeneity carries over to school—whether a neighborhood public school or a private school (parochial or nonsectarian). Increasingly, children find themselves in schools segregated by income as well as by race and ethnicity (Coley and Baker 2013).

Stratification by income also leads to neighborhoods that are more homogeneous with respect to percentages of adults in the labor force or facing long-term unemployment, as well as the types of work engaged in by those who are employed. Such patterns are determined in large part by the type and extent of the human capital that adults bring to the labor market, as well as labor market trends in the kinds of occupations with openings, the salaries and benefits offered, and their locations (Levy and Murnane 2013). At the low end of the spectrum, neighborhoods in which a plurality of adult males either are or have been incarcerated are characterized by high unemployment, high levels of crime, and a lack of positive role models.

As noted at the outset, these trends are driven not only by globalization and the rapid advances in technology but also by interactions among market forces, regulatory decisions, and legislation. Inasmuch as how these trends shape parents' or guardians' circumstances, children's opportunities are indirectly—but powerfully— affected by both macroeconomic factors and general societal trends.

Gaps is a metaphor for the differences among individuals in an age cohort at various points in time in the distributions of human capital. The gaps at the start of full adulthood are a consequence of the dynamic interactions between gates and gaps at each stage of the age span (Sawhill and Karpilow 2014). For example, differences at birth related to various gates being open, ajar, or fully closed lead to gaps as early as they can be measured (see Chap. 8). In turn, those gaps interact with the gates at age 5 (strongly correlated with those at birth) to produce additional gaps by age 14. This process evolves through successive transition points to age 25 and beyond. By age 25 there is great variability in the types and magnitudes of human capital that have been accumulated—and much of that variability can be traced back to individuals' family circumstances at birth and in their formative years.

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