03/09/2012 05:06 pm ET Updated May 09, 2012

Mind the Gap

Given that much of the Occupy movement has come in from the cold city streets around the world to organize indoors, many protestors have been asking: What now? Depending on your economic and political worldview, the Occupiers' effect has ranged from marginal to substantial, positive to negative. Whatever your view, the Occupy movement, along with President Barack Obama's latest budget request calling for financial regulation and tax reform, reflects an interest among many Americans and political leaders in reducing the ever-widening income gap in the American population.

The vast income disparity, however, is primarily the result rather than a cause of two of our society's greatest ills: an increasingly uneducated populace and a lack of the social mobility on which the nation was originally built. Every politician, Occupier and everyday citizen truly supporting the notion of social mobility -- one of America's founding ideals and a main tenant of both parties' platforms -- must double down on reducing the income gap's inseparable brother: disparity in educational achievement.

An article published in the New York Times last week brings to the public eye what educational research has long sought to demonstrate -- the achievement gap between affluent and low-income students, based on indicators such as standardized tests and college completion, has grown by 40 to 50 percent in the last half century. The reasons for this increase are largely inextricable from income inequality. More affluent parents have higher recorded indices of parental involvement, a factor that one study conclusively links to higher grades among all racial categories. Wealthier parents can spend more money on early education, move to suburbs with better funded schools and speak with a more complex vocabulary to their children -- all factors that help children excel in school.

On the other side, parents that earn lower incomes, especially those raising children on their own, have less time to spend on their children's health and education in the critical developmental periods before they even enter school. In effect, these children simply learn less than their more affluent peers prior to formal schooling. As a result, they have a more difficult time catching up once they enter kindergarten. Researchers have found that poverty is positively correlated to "chronic stress," which in turn negatively correlates to working memory, a system of our brain essential to learning and a reliable predictor of future achievement. Coming into the system with less background knowledge, a more limited vocabulary and a lower capacity to learn as a result of this stress, many children never catch up, regardless of the quality of their teachers.

The most depressing aspect of the interplay between the income and achievement gaps is that it creates a positive feedback loop. Public school funding is often tied in large part to local property taxes. Low-income districts in dire need of an effective, well-funded education system frequently receive the least funding. Affluent children, already benefiting from heavy parental involvement, will have the added benefit of high income taxes supporting their school. As the Times noted, since academic achievement is tied to future income, the already affluent will become wealthier and raise high-achieving children. The low-income children, by contrast, rarely have the chance to receive a comparable education to break out of their inherited poverty.

I agree with the Occupiers when they say our system is broken. But is it more important to start with the top or the bottom? The richest in our nation should not benefit from unfair tax advantages, but they shouldn't be punished for being wealthy, either. The poorest in our nation should always have a safety net to fall back on, but we should not have a system that encourages them to live within it.

If we want social mobility in this nation, it is not enough to simply tax the rich or throw more money into entitlement programs. Whether locally, federally or at the state level, young students and professionals need to agitate for early education initiatives that aim to bridge this cycle by providing immersive pre-kindergarten education for low-income children. Only when we can break the achievement gap and bring even a semblance of equality to high and low-income area public schools can we truly say this country is one in which all are born with an equal chance in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.

This piece originally appeared in The Dartmouth.