Saturday, June 6, 2009

You want a meritocracy with that?

It’s been a common belief among many—often conservatives though sometimes not—that class doesn’t matter in America. If you work hard and are smart you can get ahead in life. End of story. People who aren’t rich or well-off should stop complaining and just work harder. I wonder though, how much the class of the family we’re born to affects our chances in life. How much of a meritocracy do we really have?

Not necessarily a lot argues Paul Krugman in his book The Conscience of a Liberal. He cites some compelling evidence. For example, a study published by the National Center for Education Statistics found that kids from the top quarter of the income distribution who scored in the bottom quarter on a math exam were more likely to finish college than kids from the bottom quarter of income who finished in the top quarter on the exam.

What could cause this? The kids from the poor families who score high can’t be dumber than the rich kids who end up finishing college here. After all, they did better on the exam than their rich counterparts. And it seems unfathomable that the poor kids somehow have worse work ethics than the rich ones. If anything, they may have had to struggle harder in school because of their home circumstances to acquire the skills they needed to do well on the exam.

Therefore other factors must be at play. Perhaps the clearest is that these kids often have difficulty financing a college education. The cost of college is rising so fast that even the scholarships they might win aren’t enough to pay tuition bills. So they have two choices: take on unsustainable levels of debt or just not finish college. Little wonder that these kids choose to leave or not attend in the first place.

And the consequences of not finishing college remain for life. The rich kids who got to finish college will find higher-paying jobs and earn more over a lifetime. They will have an easier time purchasing healthcare and paying to send their children to college. In cases like this, the only thing that separates the rich kids from the poor is that their parents had more money. It seems galling to claim that their better outcomes in life were a result of “meritocracy,” or that the kids had “equality of opportunity.”

Yes it is possible to transcend circumstances. America has plenty of people who have risen from poverty to achieve great things. And I’m proud of that fact. But too many observers have taken these exceptions and pretended they’re a rule. The fact of the matter is that one’s circumstances in life, even in the US, determine much more than we would like. In the next few years, I hope we have an honest discussion about how to provide true equality of opportunity to future generations.

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