Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Opportunity Is Not Equal

Happy are those who find wisdom,
and those who get understanding,

for her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold.

She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.

Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.

Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.

She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called happy.
Proverbs 3:13-18

My friend Keith Sanzen posted a CNN essay on education on his Facebook page. The article was titled, “For Poor Children, Trying Hard Is Not Enough.” It was written by Trina R. Shanks, an associate professor of social work at the University of Michigan and a Rhodes Scholar.

Shanks, who is black, notes that she is the granddaughter of an elementary school cook and a woman who cleaned other people’s homes. Her grandmothers never had much money, but they worked hard and encouraged their children to get an education. In spite of their difficult economic circumstances, both of her parents earned college degrees and were able to raise Shanks and her siblings in a middle class lifestyle. And now she, their daughter, “went on to receive a Ph.D.”

Her point in the essay is that the story she lived, of upward mobility, is increasingly difficult to achieve. She cites studies showing that income level and educational opportunity are linked. And points out that the effects are dramatic: the highest achieving students from poor families are less likely to complete college than the lowest achieving students of affluent families. In terms of completing a college degree, income is a greater determinate than ability or effort. We are not just wasting the lives of individual children, though that would be bad enough, we are losing precious intellectual resources that could benefit our whole society.

The article was interesting and appalling. But it did not break new ground. Anyone who has been concerned about upward social mobility in the United States already knows that we now lag far behind many other western countries.

To me, the comments following the article were more interesting than the article itself.

The negative responses followed a pattern: “I was poor and I worked hard and I succeeded. Everyone can succeed if they work hard enough.”

We won’t question how “poor” the writers actually were, or how hard they worked. I applaud the effort and the achievement, but I am appalled by the reasoning. The point that Shanks and many others are making is not that it is impossible for a poor child to overcome his or her circumstances, but that such success is so very rare. 

This is not about individual success or failure; it is about broad social patterns.Among poor children, even those with great gifts and determination face daunting odds. Some will succeed, but too many will fail. The individual struggles are poignant, but the social costs are staggering.

As a child, when I learned about the American Dream, I was taught that education was the foundation and the great equalizer. Regardless of race or class, everyone had the opportunity to learn and, therefore, the opportunity to succeed. In my idyllic Cape Cod childhood, I understood success to mean a home, a family and a satisfying occupation that contributed to the greater good. That modest dream is increasingly out of reach for children growing up in low income families. As one researcher ironically observed, the best way to insure success is to choose wisely when selecting your parents.


  1. In Dickens' story "A Christmas Carol", the Ghost of Christmas Present shelters two children under his cloak: Ignorance and Want. The Ghost warns to beware them both, but especially Ignorance, represented as a hollow eyed, lethargic boy.

    I have been one to occasionally say "I grew up poor" as a short hand for what happened when I went from living with my family in a post-war cape to living with my mom in one sub-standard apartment after another. One, notably lacking heat and hot water, was her favorite. It was very cheap.

    My mother left school to work in the textile mills at the age of 14. Her work experience included restaurants; a hospital kitchen; nursing homes and an electronics factory. Her one hope for me was that I might learn to type: "If you can type, you can get a good job." (Empahsis on the word "good", meaning you might not come home exhausted.)

    I graduated from high school with honors, a love of learning and no prospects. There was no money for college and no typing jobs in my town. My guidance counselor suggested I write to Rose Kennedy to ask her for help. The town postmaster suggested I write to a Senator named Pell.

    I attended RI College on a Pell Grant. It was a miracle! My first General Studies assignment was to conduct a survey on the American Dream and its impact on the low turnout at the most recent presidential elections. The grade I earned on that paper was a C. My first C. The professor's comment was: "I am puzzled, but you have clearly worked hard."

    You see, I had never heard of the American Dream ---literally, had never heard the expression. I assumed it had something to do with voting. One man, one vote? Something like that. There was no "Google" to check and I didn't know how to find "American Dream" in the library. This resulted in a very muddled paper. But I wasn't stupid and I was trying. I was, in the true sense, ignorant, though I wasn't at the rock bottom of the heap even then.

    I graduated from RIC with honors. I can type. I am neither poor nor painfully ignorant. Well done me! Well done America! And yet...here they come behind me in ever greater numbers...while affordable health care and training programs and Pell Grants (God bless Senator Pell!)are threatened...an army rises consisting of those for whom the American Dream is not only out of reach,it is not even on the map.

    Beware them both: Ignorance and Want. They are our future.

    1. John Quincy Adams said it best, "Patience and perserverance have a magical affect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish."

    2. JQA unfortunately lived before the time of baseball, and thus did not understand the emerging and increasingly frequent experience of those born on third base who convince themselves they've hit a homer.