Talented Youth Of Low-income Families Become Our ‘Lost Einsteins’
Innovation is widely viewed as the engine of economic growth.
To maximize innovation and growth, all of our brightest youth should have the opportunity to become inventors. Studies have shown that an awfully bleak picture of our lost geniuses is being composed in our urban communities. Our children’s potential for future innovation seems to have as much to do with the circumstances of his or her family background as it does with his or her talent.
It has been concluded that there are many “Lost Einsteins” in America – children who have the ability to innovate, but whose socioeconomic class or gender, greatly reduces their ability to tap into the social networks, higher learning institutions and resources necessary to become today’s inventors. These analyses have shed light on how increasing these young people’s exposure to innovators may be an important way to reduce these disparities and increase the number of inventors.
Academic gaps widen with time
Our first finding is that there are large differences in innovation rates by socioeconomic class, race and gender. Using new de-identified data that allows us to track 1.2 million inventors from birth to adulthood, we found that children born to parents in the top 1 percent of the income distribution are 10 times as likely to become inventors as those born to parents in the bottom half. Similarly, white children are three times as likely to become inventors as are black children. Only 18 percent of the youngest generation of inventors are female. Although the gender gap narrows somewhat each year, at the current rate of convergence, we won’t see gender balance until next century.
This is not to say that talent doesn’t play some role in determining who invents in America. In fact, math test scores for students even as young as third grade tell us a great deal about who will innovate. Unsurprisingly, inventors are typically found in the top tiers of math test scores. More concerning is that while high-achieving youth from privileged backgrounds go on to invent at high rates, many comparably talented children from more modest backgrounds do not. Even among the most talented kids, family background is still an important determinant of who grows up to invent.
The relative importance of privilege and skills changes as kids get older. And it does so in a way that suggests that differences in educational environment contribute to disparities in patent rates. Near the start of elementary school, we can identify many high-achieving students from less privileged backgrounds. But as these students get older, the difference in test scores between rich and poor become much more pronounced. By high school, youth from less privileged backgrounds who appeared to hold promise as future inventors when they were younger have fallen behind academically. Other recent research suggests that differences in schools and neighborhoods play a large role in this socioeconomic divergence in skills.
If we could somehow get all kids to grow up to invent at the same rate as white boys from America’s wealthiest families – that is, families with an income of $100,000 or more – we would have four times as many inventors in America. So what can be done to keep these “Lost Einsteins” in the pipeline to become innovators?