Despite its reputation for offering unmatched upward mobility and opportunity, the United States is still a difficult place for people on the lowest rungs of society to climb to prosperity. So concludes some recent research reported in the Washington Post that found even the most resolute and intelligent among the poor have a difficult time getting ahead.
[In] large part, inequality starts in the crib. Rich parents can afford to spend more time and money on their kids, and that gap has only grown the past few decades. Indeed, economists Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane calculate that, between 1972 and 2006, high-income parents increased their spending on “enrichment activities” for their children by 151 percent in inflation-adjusted terms, compared to 57 percent for low-income parents.
But, of course, it’s not just a matter of dollars and cents. It’s also a matter of letters and words. Affluent parents talk to their kids three more hours a weekon average than poor parents, which is critical during a child’s formative early years. That’s why, as Stanford professor Sean Reardon explains, “rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students,” and they’re staying that way.
Poverty makes it difficult for parents to spend quality time with children, let alone afford the various extracurricular activities that enhance a child’s aptitude for learning and good behavior earlier on. Even middle class families find it increasingly hard to raise a child optimally, especially as most households require at least two incomes to stay afloat, and ever longer workings hours.
Even if poorer children (and their guardians) work harder to compensate for this disadvantage in resources, they remain statistically more likely to be stuck in poverty.
In other words, one’s conditions — and the subsequent advantages and disadvantages –generally tend to perpetuate themselves even when adjusting for work ethic, education, and skills. A wealthy high school dropout has a better chance of remaining wealthy than a poor college graduate does of emerging from poverty. As the title of the above chart sardonically notes, this gives lie to the meritocratic values of American society.
What’s going on? Well, it’s all about glass floors and glass ceilings. Rich kids who can go work for the family business — and, in Canada at least, 70 percent of the sons of the top 1 percent do just that — or inherit the family estate don’t need a high school diploma to get ahead. It’s an extreme example of what economists call “opportunity hoarding.” That includes everything from legacy college admissions to unpaid internships that let affluent parents rig the game a little more in their children’s favor.
But even if they didn’t, low-income kids would still have a hard time getting ahead. That’s, in part, because they’re targets for diploma mills that load them up with debt, but not a lot of prospects. And even if they do get a good degree, at least when it comes to black families, they’re more likely to still live in impoverished neighborhoods that keep them disconnected from opportunities.
If there were enough entry level jobs out there that allowed for greater upward mobility or a decent salary down the road, much of this problem would be moot. But most of the work available to the poor, and increasingly the middle class, is in low paying sectors like dining and retail. Not only do these jobs pay little to begin with, but there are few prospects for income growth even after years of service; the pyramidal structures of most companies by definition offer few management jobs to aspire to, while raises, benefits, bonuses, and stock options are either inadequate, nonexistent, or offered only sparingly.
Obviously, better and more accessible employment on its own will not do the trick; a secondary education should be more affordable, as should postnatal care and other formative child services only the wealthy can typically access. But if more people could get by on the jobs available, instead of feeling pressured to pursue an expensive and ever-less beneficial degree, perhaps we would see a greater rise in upward mobility, as the poor could immediately begin working in more sustainable and gainful occupations. Most companies could well afford to pay their workers better, and hardworking employees could earn better wages and salaries regardless of whether there is a rare management or administrative position open.
What are your thoughts?