Examine the rising inequality of opportunity in American society
In his 1835 text “Democracy in America,” French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville was perhaps most captivated by what he dubbed America’s “equality of condition.” According to the First Principles Journal, de Tocqueville employed this phrase to refer not to “the literal material equality of all American citizens, but rather the universal assumption that no significance was to be accorded to any apparent differences—material, social, or personal.”
This innate equality was initially affirmed in the Declaration of Independence’s “self-evident” “truth” that “all men are created equal.” Rather than signifying that citizens were promised equal outcomes, this clause expressed that all are born with equal dignity and guaranteed objective treatment before the law.
Of course, the Founders’ 18th-century notion of equality was far from how we conceive the principle today. After all, it was not until the late 1860s — nearly a century later — that Congress passed the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, abolishing slavery, proclaiming equal protection under the law and legally enfranchising African-American males, respectively. Women, too, lacked equality at the time of America’s founding, and it was not until the 19th Amendment in 1920 that they achieved significant strides toward America’s previously false promise.
Beyond that, even after established in law, equality for these groups and others has been an ongoing process. Nonetheless, the idea that became “equality of opportunity” has gained impressive traction in America.
Perhaps that is why, historically, a large proportion of American citizens have identified themselves as “middle-class,” according to Robert Putnam, a professor of Public Policy at Harvard, in his 2015 book “Our Kids.”
According to an April 28, 2015 Gallup poll, however, this number is declining. In 2000, 61 percent of American adults considered themselves “middle or upper-middle class.” By last year, that number had dropped to 51 percent.
An important distinction needs to be made between inequality of opportunity and that of wealth and income. Though related, each is a distinct issue. On the most basic level, inequality of wealth and income concerns outcomes; this kind of inequality is sometimes unavoidable — “part of modern humanity,” according to an Oct. 1, 2012 Psychology Today article. People attain different heights. To control that would be to limit human freedom and suppress human potential. That is why America is predicated on the concept of equal opportunity and why the value remains prevalent in the country’s culture even today.
Equality of opportunity means that all people, no matter how modest their backgrounds, embark on their proverbial educational and economic journey from the same starting line — that each person is offered the ability to achieve financial stability.
Sadly, as communities become more segregated by class, the relative equality of opportunity that should characterize America is in crisis. Increasingly, the mere location in which an American is born and raised determines their path in life and economic prospects.
In his book, Putnam describes how the changing reality in his hometown, Port Clinton, Ohio, represents a larger growing shift across America. Putnam characterizes 1950s Port Clinton as a microcosm of the United States: “[E]conomic and educational expansion were high … class segregation in neighborhoods and schools was low; class barriers to intermarriage and social intercourse were low … and opportunities for kids born in the lower echelon to scale the socioeconomic ladder were abundant.”
Sixty years ago, in Port Clinton, the poorest family in town and the wealthiest lived but four blocks from each other, says Putnam. Kids from nearly every socioeconomic stratum attended the same public schools, played together and were typically raised by a set of married, biological parents rearing with largely universal styles.
By no means was this every town in America, but this reality did predominate, according to Putnam. Much has changed since then, in Port Clinton and elsewhere.
Changes in family structure have played an especially significant role. Today, according to Putnam, Port Clinton is a “split-screen American nightmare,” where kids on one side of the town have starkly different fates from those on the other. Growing class segregation has decreased the number of cross-class marriages, meaning “fewer and fewer working-class kids will have rich uncles or well-educated aunts to help them ascend the ladder.” In addition, due to a variety of factors — including the de-stigmatization of divorce and cohabitation — children born out of wedlock and raised by single parents are increasingly common.
According to a 1995 report co-authored by Princeton sociology and public affairs professor Sara McLanahan and Oklahoma State University sociology professor Gary Sandefur, single parents are more likely to be low-income, and their kids are twice as likely to drop out of high school. Putnam says this type of situation hits especially hard those without means on the bottom socioeconomically, exacerbating their financial instability.
As Putnam says, “cause and effect are entangled here: poverty produces family instability and family instability in turn produces poverty.” But it is not so clear. According to a June 4, 2014 Fox opinion piece, some economists at Harvard and Berkeley estimate that “today, 64 percent of the people born to the poorest fifth of society rise out of that quintile — 11 percent rise all the way into the top quintile.” Despite this, as Putnam asserts, poorer children face “diminished prospects for success in life,” and he is certainly correct in education.
Opportunities in education, increasingly vital in today’s economy, are more and more dependent on location of residence — and, in effect, social class. In one 2013 report, the Pell Institute found that “individuals from the highest-income families were 8 times more likely than individuals from low-income families to obtain a bachelor’s degree by age 24.” This problem has worsened in recent decades: In 1970, the disparity was by a factor of six, not eight. According to a 2008 National Center for Education Statistics report, kids from low-income families are five times more likely to drop out of high school than their high-income counterparts.
These statistics are not surprising; the correlation between socioeconomic status and academic achievement has long been established. Putnam concludes that “family background matters more than 8th grade test scores for college graduation.”
Robert Sampson, a professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard, says that increasing socioeconomic segregation has detrimental effects for more than just education. He holds that the issue has implications for “crime … child health, public protest, the density of elite networks, civic engagement, teen births, altruism, perceived disorder, collective efficacy, [and] immigration.”
And Americans understand what is happening. In 2007, only 63 percent of respondents agreed that “hard work pays off,” compared to the 74 percent in 1999, according to the Pew Research Center. Moreover, as recently as 2007, only 34 percent of American adults said “[hard work] does not necessarily lead to success,” suggesting that other factors have become of increased importance. Americans are losing their belief in the efficacy of the once sacred value of hard work and are coming to the realization that socioeconomic status is one of the greatest determinants of success in a variety of areas. The Occupy movement and candidacy of Bernie Sanders are testaments to this widespread frustration.
The widening of socioeconomic disparities poses a threat to the validity of the American Dream. Throughout the nation’s history, millions of immigrants have made the voyage to America with just pennies in hopes of economic opportunity. Perhaps today they would be better off going somewhere else.
America is failing too many of its kids. Effort must determine success, not zip code or any other arbitrary factor. The American republic has a moral obligation to provide its youth with the opportunity to achieve their potential.