I know I said I was going to be writing about productivity over the next few weeks... and I am. But something else came across my screen today that I feel compelled to write about first. I want to write about what equal opportunity really means. Not strictly from a standpoint of gender or race- but from a standpoint of what it would mean to have a society that provides equal opportunities to people.
I think a lot of people would say that it means that two candidates- for a job, or for a spot on a college admissions list, for instance- are evaluated strictly on merit. They are given equal opportunity to prove their worth.
I don't think that goes far enough.
I think we should aim to have it mean that any two little babies would have the same chance to live up to their full potential, regardless of their race, gender, eventual sexual orientation, or how much money their parents make.
There is a lot of work to do and a lot of interesting discussion to have around the first three things on my list, but I want to talk about the last thing on the list: the role of money.
I started thinking about this today because I read Sean Reardon's NY Times Essay: "No Rich Child Left Behind." It is about the the gap in educational attainment between rich kids and lower income kids. He presents data that show the gap is widening, and not because poor kids are doing less well, but because rich kids are doing better:
"The academic gap is widening because rich students are increasingly
entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than
middle-class students. This difference in preparation persists through
elementary and high school."
His essay is food for thought, but doesn't provide a lot of answers for what we should do. As he says:
"It’s not clear what we should do about all this. Partly that’s because
much of our public conversation about education is focused on the wrong
culprits: we blame failing schools and the behavior of the poor for
trends that are really the result of deepening income inequality and the
behavior of the rich."
He clearly thinks something should be done, though:
"Meanwhile, not only are the children of the rich doing better in
school than even the children of the middle class, but the changing
economy means that school success is increasingly necessary to future
economic success, a worrisome mutual reinforcement of trends that is
making our society more socially and economically immobile.
We need to start talking about this. Strangely, the rapid growth in
the rich-poor educational gap provides a ray of hope: if the
relationship between family income and educational success can change
this rapidly, then it is not an immutable, inevitable pattern. What
changed once can change again. Policy choices matter more than we have
recently been taught to think.
So how can we move toward a society in which educational success is
not so strongly linked to family background? Maybe we should take a
lesson from the rich and invest much more heavily as a society in our
children’s educational opportunities from the day they are born."
The added emphasis is mine. I am not an expert on early education, or public policy. I know that figuring out how to give all of our kids a better chance to make the most of the educational opportunities they have will not be easy.
But I strongly believe we should try.
I think most readers of this blog will have figured out by now that my husband and I are fairly wealthy. Pumpkin and Petunia are easily in the group Reardon labels as "rich kids." He is right: we are rich and we have given them many enrichment opportunities, and we continue to do so.
Most of you might not know, however, that I wasn't always this rich. I don't write much about my background, not because I am ashamed of it (far from it), but because it seems so mundane. We weren't rich, but we weren't particularly poor. My family did use food stamps when I was little- I remember going shopping with my Mom and needing to separate our items into things we could buy with food stamps and things we couldn't. When I got a little older, though, my Mom (a teacher) went back to work and my father (a librarian) got a promotion, and money wasn't quite so tight. I don't remember wanting for anything as a grade school kid, but I still have memories of money being an issue some times. When I tell Pumpkin that something is too expensive to buy, I am trying to teach her about the value of money. When my parents told me that, chances were it really was too expensive for them to buy.
My parents certainly wouldn't have been able to take me to a two day visit to Disneyland for my 6th birthday- not even if Disneyland had somehow been transplanted to a location 1.5 hours away from my home. We took family vacations, but not every year, and we stayed in economy motel rooms, not the business class suites my husband and I favor.
This is not to say that trips to Disneyland and business class hotels are essential enrichment opportunities. It is just to give an idea of the difference in my current socioeconomic level and the one from which I came.
You can look at stories like mine and argue that there is no problem- I worked my way up, after all. From food stamps to top 5% of income in one generation! But I think that overlooks both the extent to which I was the beneficiary of things not generally available to other kids from modest means and the extent to which we have dismantled some of the things that helped me when I was a kid.
I was cared for as a baby and young child by an expert in early education- my mother, who had taken a break from her career as an elementary school teacher both because at that time you had to quit when you got pregnant and because she wanted to stay home with her kids. I had parents who were well aware of the free educational opportunities offered by my local library and had no logistical trouble availing themselves of them- my Dad worked there, after all, and the children's librarians were family friends. I had a loving extended family, who provided a sense of security and well-being. My family had access to food stamps when we needed them, so I never remember going to bed hungry, except when I refused to eat my dinner on grounds of it being "gross." (Yeah, Pumpkin comes by her extremely picky streak naturally.) We had access to affordable housing. Our part of town was not wealthy, but the only time I found it scary was when a guard dog from one of the nearby light industrial businesses got loose. I do not remember gangs being much of a problem, although there was some gang presence in my high school. Both my former elementary school and my former junior high have to take anti-gang measures now.
And I'm white. So no one looked at me as a kid and thought I was genetically destined to be lazy or stupid.
I look at my background and at what I have today, and I mourn the fact
that so many factors have to line up for people to have the socioeconomic
mobility I have had. And apparently, it is only getting harder.
We should look at our society and ask ourselves how can we help all parents provide the excellent early environment my parents provided. How can we ensure that all kids have the same high quality of day care my children have? How can we make sure no child is held back by hunger?
In essence, we need to look at our society and ask ourselves how we can stop wasting so much human potential, because make no mistake, that is what we are doing now, and that is a tragedy both for the kids whose potential we waste and for our society, which misses out on the benefits of a better educated population.
I am not hopelessly naive. I know that parents matter and that
there is only so much the larger society can- or should- do to level the
inequalities created by money. I know that wealthy parents like me will
continue to give our kids every opportunity we can, and that there we will
never truly have equal opportunities for all the little babies born in our country.
But I think we can- and should- do a hell of a lot more than we do now.