On December 17, 2013, Prof. Raj Chetty gave a talk on “Improving equality of opportunity” at the World Bank in Washington, D.C.
I have always found the concept of equality of opportunity fascinating. “A world where your future does not depend on where you come from, how much your family earns, what color your skin is, or whether you are male or female” sounds like a good world to me - a world I am sure we all would want to live in.
And, wearing the hat of a development worker, I know that with “equality of opportunity” I can always reach the heart of even the toughest policymaker: who can argue with giving children a fair start in life?
Turns out I could not attend Prof. Chetty’s lecture (I relocated to Warsaw last summer), so I clicked on the link that came with it.There is this map of the US (see below): lighter colored areas indicate regions where children from low-income families are more likely to move up in the income distribution.
Pretty impressive, no? You can even click on individual US cities and see how it works in your own neighborhood.
I couldn’t help but wonder: what would an equality of opportunity map of Eastern Europe look like? Especially one that is based on data that includes the estimated 6-12 million Roma people who live in it? Where would those burgundy areas be? I would bet that segregated settlements such as Moldava nad Bodvou or Velka Ida, in Eastern Slovakia, Ferentari, outside of Bucharest, Romania, or Stolipinovo, in Bulgaria’s second largest city, Plovdiv, would command their dark shade of red.
What chance of success do children there have – growing up in shacks, without sanitation, without running water; often streamed into “special needs” schools when their only “special” need is to learn from a good and committed teacher in a respectful environment?
Extreme cases, you say?
Evidence suggests that, on average, access to pre-school education and school attainment for Roma is many times lower than for non-Roma. Yet, when asked about aspirations for their children, responses from Roma parents are astonishingly similar to those from non-Roma parents: they all want their children to graduate from high school and find a job.
There is a long history behind this tremendous gap between aspirations and reality - one that goes way beyond the 700 words of a blog. But inequalities at the beginning are clearly an important part of perpetuating poverty and exclusion for Roma.
What if governments made a good start for Roma children a priority?
This is not only the right thing to do, it is also the smart thing to do for rapidly aging countries - such as those in Eastern Europe - that will need to invest in the skills of the new, large cohorts of Roma children in order to maintain their competitive edge as economies. Moreover, EU member states now have a tremendous opportunity to utilize European structural funds to help achieve social inclusion.
What, then, would it take?
It would take promoting an inclusive education system – starting with access to pre-school. It would take supporting Roma parents in upgrading their skills and helping them to access productive employment, so that they can provide for their families. It would take improving living conditions and housing so that Roma children can grow up in homes with electricity, running water, and sanitation.
All too daunting?
I don’t think so. Countries like Spain and Hungary have already made great progress in promoting access to pre-school for Roma children. I, myself, got my own dose of optimism when a few months ago I met a group of scholarship beneficiaries from one of the programs of the Roma Education Fund. They had come from all over Eastern Europe to Bucharest to meet with President Kim. A really impressive group of young women and men—polished, articulated, professional.
Some of them had grown up in segregated settlements. Some said that every year when school began their mothers had to fight or plea with the teacher not to have their child put in a special needs class. Many said that the scholarship made the difference in their lives and helped them succeed against all odds.
The time to change these odds is now.
And guess what? It will work.