We all want to live in a country where all it takes is hard work and some talent for anyone to succeed. We tell ourselves that we do. We even see examples of people who “came from nothing” and ended up rich and famous.
And it’s true that it sometimes happens. Sometimes a child born into poverty grows up to become the president of the United States, a multi-billionaire, or an Olympic gold medalist.
Most of the time, however, they don’t. And it’s not because they’re bad, lazy, stupid, or immoral. Often it’s because of our system itself.
Take our school system for a start. By funding schools with property taxes, we guarantee that the children from the richest neighborhoods go to the wealthiest schools.
If we lived in neighborhoods that were economically mixed with families of all incomes, this wouldn’t be a big deal. But we don’t. Instead we have areas of very wealthy people whose children attend wonderful schools, and areas of concentrated poverty where children attend failing schools.
And the kids in the good schools? Their parents can afford tutoring, extracurricular activities, summer camp, and SAT prep classes. It’s the kids whose parents can’t provide those extra learning opportunities who go to the worst schools.
Meanwhile, careers are sorted into those that require a college degree and those that don’t. Once upon a time, one could support a family on the wage of a manufacturing job. But America lost those jobs, and replaced them with poorly paid service jobs that often have no benefits.
For those without college degrees, getting ahead is difficult. But college is expensive. Even without the tuition costs, one has to keep a roof over their head and eat while attending school. Community colleges and online programs add flexibility for students who work full time while attending school, but it can still be difficult.
I don’t advocate a return to the days when men worked and women stayed home. But at least back then, families had an adult whose full time duties were to take care of the home and the children.
When women went to work, the expectations of the workplace didn’t change. Men with stay-at-home wives never needed maternity leave or flex time or places to pump breastmilk or time off to pick up a sick kid from day care.
But in families where both partners work, or in single parent families, how on earth are parents supposed to hold down a full time job and simultaneously be full-time homemakers?
Sociologist Arlie Hochschild examined this in her classic book The Second Shift, finding that the housework often still falls disproportionately to working women, often leaving them frazzled and exhausted. Sometimes the kids lose out, when neither parent has time to spend with them.
Wealthier families now pay for the work that women used to do for free: childcare, laundry, cooking, cleaning, and so on.
But whom do they pay? Less wealthy women, usually. And those women, after spending a day caring for someone else’s kids or doing someone else’s laundry, still have to figure out how to get their own housework done once they go home.
The end result is that most people who start out poor stay poor. And those who start out rich usually stay rich. (Recent studies show that Canada now has three times better social mobility than the U.S., suggesting the American dream moved north.)
Ours is a great system, if you’re rich. But we’d be a better country if we didn’t rig the game against those whose only mistake was to be born to poor parents.