(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.