Michigan Minds podcast: Addressing Systemic Inequities and Educational Disparities

March 1, 2023

Katherine Michelmore, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Public Policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, and core faculty of the Education Policy Initiative (EPI). Her research examines the social safety net, education policy, labor economics, and economic demography. Michelmore joins Michigan Minds to discuss her research, which examines how much black-white educational disparities reflect differences in family, school, and neighborhood contexts, and how the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) impacts multigenerational households and lower-income families with a nonresident parent.

“The Education Policy Initiative is a group of faculty, researchers, and staff interested in highlighting a lot of the interesting work in education policy, both locally and across the nation,” says Michelmore.

Michelmore explains the work of the EPI, and its focus on investigating systemic and structural issues in education with rigorous research methods. The research initiative aims to shine a light on the effect of interventions and policies so policymakers and practitioners have accurate information when making choices about how best to invest their resources.

In a recent study, Michelmore examines black-white educational disparities, and how they may reflect differences in family, school, and neighborhood contexts. The study used 16 years of statewide student administrative data from Michigan, with special attention paid to observed racial differences. Michelmore discusses the initial inspiration for this work, how the study was conducted, and the findings from this research.

Another key finding from this study found that children who grow up in poverty are less likely to go to college regardless of race, but Black children are four times more likely to experience chronic economic hardship than white children. Michelmore says these findings amplify the argument that uprooting systemic racism requires an ongoing confrontation with how this history warps Black and white childhood opportunities.

“There’s a whole legacy of systemic racism that contributes to those patterns, and that is contributing in part to why…we observe these college-going gaps between Black and white children. But again, once we account for the differences in the experience of poverty that Black and white children experience throughout childhood, we actually see that that gap is eliminated and is actually even reversed.”

Michelmore discusses another study she authored, which found that more than 60 percent of children in lower-income families reside in households where multiple adults can potentially claim the same child as a dependent, creating confusion among tax filers. Additionally, among lower-income families, approximately 80 percent of Black children had one nonresident parent. 

“Our goal with this work was to really understand how something like the tax system, which you don’t necessarily think of as being a racist institution on its face, how it can create these inequitable outcomes for Black and white children.”

In reference to this study, Michelmore explains why it’s important to look at institutions and systems with a critical eye toward examining the barriers they create for the people who use them. She describes how the tax system creates different outcomes for families because of factors like household composition and marital status.

“I think the thing I’d say to take away from all of this is to kind of take a critical eye to the different institutions we have in this country. So especially the second study that I highlighted is really about something where on its face, a system doesn’t appear to have a racist attitude, but when you peel back the layers, when you think about how do we construct tax filing units, what is our notion of what is a family, those things have implications for children depending on their racial and ethnic background.”

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This podcast and story were prepared by the Office of Public Engagement & Impact.