Class shackles hard to break

(reprinted from 1/30/2005)

Before I was conceived, I did an exceptional job of choosing my parents.

Sitting there in Elysium (or wherever I was before conception), I decided to be born to black parents in the segregated South. But I didn’t want to be severely limited by my circumstances, so I chose a young couple who were married, employed, had graduate degrees, who were unburdened by alcoholism or criminal history . . .

What? You doubt me? You don’t think that’s how I came to be born into middle-class circumstances? You don’t think children choose their parents?

Well, we conduct public policy as if we do.

Whenever I write a column criticizing social traditions and public policies that ignore children born to parents of modest means — without stock market portfolios or networks of well-connected friends — I’m swamped by a deluge of letters from readers angry that I’d even suggest that government intervene to give those children a hand up: Parents are responsible for their children. Whatever happened to parental responsibility? Why didn’t they think about that before they had children?

You might as well ask: Why didn’t those children do a better of job of choosing their parents?

Since children obviously cannot choose their families, it’s impractical, at best, to neglect those born outside the magic circle of middle-class attainment. For many of those children, the routes up and out are blocked, their circumstances more limited than many of us can imagine.

We Americans still cling to our Horatio Alger mythology — our rags-to-riches stories. And each generation manages to create a handful of those spectacular successes, enough to keep the myth alive. Every few years, a working-class couple hits a multimillion-dollar lottery jackpot or an NBA player rises from the ‘hood to the high life. That’s enough to infuse most Americans with the sense that their pot of gold will be revealed as soon as those fleeting dark clouds disappear.

But the simple truth is that the fabled American meritocracy is receding. The gap between haves and have-nots grows ever larger, and it is increasingly difficult to escape a childhood among the ‘nots.

A recent article in The Economist, a conservative newsweekly headquartered in London, took a look at social mobility in this country and found that “American society is much ’stickier’ than most Americans assume.” In other words, it’s harder than many of us think for people to rise above the station into which they were born.

The magazine reported on a study of the economic circumstances of fathers and sons by Earl Wysong of Indiana University and two colleagues. The study “compared the incomes of 2,749 father-and-son pairs from 1979 to 1998 and found that few sons had moved up the class ladder. Nearly 70 percent of the sons in 1998 had remained either at the same level or were doing worse than their fathers in 1979.

“The biggest increase in mobility had been at the top of society, with affluent sons moving upwards more often than their fathers had. They found that only 10 percent of the adult men born in the bottom quarter had made it to the top quarter, ” the magazine noted.

President Bush is not responsible for the hardening of class status; social mobility has been limited by a range of trends, including the demise of manufacturing jobs that guaranteed middle-class wages and lifelong benefits. But the president’s so-called Ownership Society will make things worse for those stuck in the bottom half. His policies help those who already own stock, bonds and real estate; they do little for those who don’t have much. As just one example, Bush has done little to help working-class and poor students pay college tuition (except to offer them the chance to serve in the military).

If America is to live up to its ideals as an egalitarian nation where any child can grow up to be president of the United States or CEO of her own software company, we’re going to have to level the playing field. Right now, we’re shortchanging those children who failed to choose affluent parents.

13 comments Add your comment

Paddy O

March 30th, 2011
7:15 pm

This is the apogee of liberal bias thought: People are enslaved by their born status, in a caste system perpetrated by society. This is blatently false. Yes, if your mother is a crack addicted bimbo slut, who has a couple of other kids indiscrimanantly by a chorus of fathers, the odds of you excelling are slim. Is society or government obligated to compensate for this set of circumstances? No. ASPECTS of society will hopefully create a social net to help that unfortunate individual get onto their feet (graduate high school, avoid immoral behavior (fornication, drug use, criminal activity). Government provides an adequate base of services – police, public schools, public housing (which ATL destroyed, as opposed to simply hiring a public housing police force). Higher education. Even the military. But, the government can NOT spoon feed success to the luckless who are born to inept, immoral parents. It is utterly unattainable what Cynthia is proposing here. It is the heart of the pollyanna, utopianistic tripe that this generation of liberals are addicted to. Finally, it is too bloody expensive. Those kids need to objectively evaluate their situation and solve their own problems – examples of how to do it are everywhere. However, our traitorous congress, with their desire to appease their titanic and voracious egos by elevating the economy of the entire globe, has hurt the ability of Americans to excel. “The biggest increase in mobility had been at the top of society, with affluent sons moving upwards more often than their fathers had. They found that only 10 percent of the adult men born in the bottom quarter had made it to the top quarter, ” the magazine noted – if this is your protest, your entire position is utter hogwash. 10% of the very poorist among us got into the top 25%? That is remarkable – and a success story. Only in the minds of the fastidious whiners is this grounds to accuse the system of failure. The failure is one of expectations, and that is in the mind of the holder. Mentally high maintenance women.

0311/0317 -1811/1801

March 30th, 2011
7:45 pm

Ms. Tucker:

The failed system you want has been tried and tried and tried and it doesn’t work.

I repeat ……….. it doesn’t work.

It’s called communism.

Kamchak

March 30th, 2011
7:52 pm

“Communism”……………………………………….ah, never mind.

Endeavor

March 30th, 2011
8:05 pm

“They found that only 10 percent of the adult men born in the bottom quarter had made it to the top quarter, ” the magazine noted.”

Not entirely a bad thing if you think about it. I mean, where else are we gonna find people to work as TSA screeners.

quod erat demonstrandum

March 30th, 2011
11:40 pm

Bogus, completely bogus.

Only in America is the dream real and alive. I grew up extremely poor, but I am anything but poor today. Hard work and a little tenacity goes a long way. Both my kids are college grads and well on their way. Not bad for a college drop out.

TnGelding

March 31st, 2011
6:33 am

“They found that only 10 percent of the adult men born in the bottom quarter had made it to the top quarter”

ONLY 10%? To me that’s a lot. It takes hard work and perseverence, and emulating the wealthy instead of envying them. We’re doing plenty to help the underprivileged. It’s hard to understand the need in a country with this amount of wealth and opportunity.

Bush’s Ownership Society put the poor, and middle class, in houses they couldn’t afford that had inflated prices. He didn’t consider the fraud and greed our “free market” economy breeds.

TnGelding

March 31st, 2011
6:37 am

I submitted my comments before reading the others.

scott

March 31st, 2011
9:10 am

“But the simple truth is that the fabled American meritocracy is receding. The gap between haves and have-nots grows ever larger, and it is increasingly difficult to escape a childhood among the ‘nots.” So true, and it will get even worse if we continue to enable those who think the country owes them something for nothing.

Paddy O

March 31st, 2011
9:49 am

scott – you, and C Tucker, are authentically WRONG. Compare the US today to the US in 1930. Almost all the dirt roads in rural places are gone. Almost every house has affordable electricity. Almost every house has indoor plumbing. One reason a depression won’t occur is that wealth is far more spread out today than in 1930, a lot is government assistance (it eliminate true poverty – providing a house and food is the key to eliminate fatal poverty. Sadly, many actually believe the crap coming out of CNN, MSNBC and the partisans on FOX.

hahaha!!!!

March 31st, 2011
11:24 am

Just more craziness from our favorite resident Neo-Comm. Hey CT, has it ever occured to you had your parents had the amount of money stolen from them as you propose government should be stealing from us today that your family would not have had the chance to be able to afford to be middle class in the first place? You are the mostly hilariously ignorant person on the planet.

If the government took from them how you wish they would take today who would have paid your college tuition? Oh nevermind. Probably that racist affirmative action….

ODDOWL

March 31st, 2011
2:41 pm

@ PADDY-O’s 7:15 PM post… Do everything you said in your post apply to the more than 50 million poor White people in this country. 60% of all White babies live in single parent homes. More than 70% of all illegal drugs that are bought, sold and consumed in America are bought, sold and consumed by White people. The majority of criminals locked up in prisons are White people etc, etc, etc. There is a very wide gulf between the racist stereotypical images you have in your head and the reality on the ground. Intelligent people ignore what racist rednecks like you say and simply watch what you do. You’re simply attempting to scape goat, blame and pro-ject your shortcomings, mistakes and deviant lifestyle onto African-Americans. Poverty and depravation is not about race. Its about rich vs. poor. Its called CLASSISM.

Really last word

March 31st, 2011
3:03 pm

Hand up and Hand out — same thing! Both = welfare. The truth is, regardless of race, regardless of need, there are many people receiving government help who just play the system because they can and that is where the gap continues to widen. It has to do with the society believing they are due more and more and not necessarily that there is a greater need.

Paddy O

March 31st, 2011
3:23 pm

ODDOWL: I dont see where is I assert any color of skin in the statements I made. What type of bias do you contain in your own mind? Please, ODDOWL – point out to where I made a statement about anybody’s race? Are YOU this profoundly racist?