“Work hard. Be nice.” is the tag-line of Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools, schools that serve primarily (and often exclusively) high-poverty minority students.
These concepts for students are also central to enduring slogans in the U.S. aimed at workers. The Puritan work ethic is a pillar upon which capitalism is built, in fact.
As a cultural myth, however, that implores students and workers to work hard, “Work hard. Be nice.” proves to be almost all myth, a misleading myth, a deforming myth—one that serves the interests of the privileged and thus would be better phrased as “Work Hard (So We Don’t Have To).”
This sloganism must be placed in its historical and current contexts.
In the U.S., until the mid-1800s, Blacks were shackled and told to work hard and be quiet.
In the U.S., until the early-1900s, women* were told don’t work because this is men’s work.
In the U.S., at best, the sort of meritocracy possibility behind work hard wasn’t open to everyone until well into the twentieth century in fact.
In the U.S., as we move deeper into the twenty-first century, the intersection of the meritocracy myth, the work hard ethic, and the promise of upward mobility reveals a pretty disturbing picture—one that refutes each of these refrains, one that calls into question building schools for high-poverty minority students on false promises.
What, then, do we know about the conditions of the worker in the U.S., meritocracy, and upward mobility—as well as the claim that education is the great equalizer, the one true path to equity and opportunity?
The U.S. Worker in the Era of Disaster Capitalism
Continuing to tell children that hard work is a valued quality is a calloused lie in an era of disaster capitalism. If the American worker ever was revered, that time has surely passed.
Being a worker in the U.S. is something to be endured, something to be avoided, something that is not nearly as respected as being rich.
And the great irony, of course, is “most Americans will always be workers”:
and to be a worker should be an honorable thing worthy of poetic speeches and artistic black-and-white film tributes. Being an American worker doesn’t need to be a condition tolerated on the way to something better, and it shouldn’t be twenty-first century wage-slavery that is a reality echoed in the allegory of SF: “one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself.” As the last paragraphs of Cloud Atlas express, however, the wage-slavery of workers in the context of assembly-line and disaster capitalism is a condition Americans have chosen (or at least been conditioned to choose), but it is also a condition workers can change—if workers believe it is wrong, “such a world will come to pass.” (Academia and the American Worker: Right to Work in an Era of Disaster Capitalism?, p. 22)
Work hard, then, succeeds as a demand from those in power and for those in power because it asks children and adults to plow forward, heads down. If students or workers ever pause to look up, the evidence before them discredits the value in slogans like “Work hard. Be nice.”
Meritocracy as a Promise that Blinds
It is no accident that when Martin Luther King Jr. is honored each year in the U.S., his most referenced words are “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
MLK serves the privileged elite in the U.S. only as he can be reduced to the meritocracy myth. MLK serves the privileged elite as long as the gaze remains on individuals and how hard he tries or how hard she tries.
And thus, the meritocracy myth is not a tool of seeking equity in a free society, but a deforming myth, because:
Meritocracy, defined as a system that rewards according to ability or achievement and not birth or privilege, may be unfair precisely because it is blind to differences of class, wealth and social status.
Meritocracy, in trying to “isolate” merit by treating people with fundamentally unequal backgrounds as superficially the same, can be a practice that ignores and even conceals the real advantages and disadvantages that are unevenly distributed to different segments of an inherently unequal society, a practice that in fact perpetuates this fundamental inequality. In this way, those who are picked by meritocracy as having merit may already have enjoyed unfair advantages from the very beginning, ignored according to the principle of nondiscrimination.
In “no excuses” schools such as KIPP—reinforced by slogans such as “Work hard. Be nice.”—the same ideology found in the meritocracy myth exists: “treating [students] with fundamentally unequal backgrounds as superficially the same.”
Word hard because that work will be rewarded despite who you are is a compelling narrative, but it also a promise that blinds, a promise that pretends systemic inequity no longer exists, no longer matters.
Upward Mobility? No. Birth Lottery? Yes.
“Contrary to the mantra commonly touted by campaigning politicians,” reports Andy Warner, “few Americans born into poverty ever get to experience the iconic rise from ‘rags to riches.'”
So what do we know about upward mobility, the hope that working hard matters more than the accident of anyone’s birth?
Is America the “Land of Opportunity”? In two recent studies, we find that: (1) Upward income mobility varies substantially within the U.S. [summary][paper] Areas with greater mobility tend to have five characteristics: less segregation, less income inequality, better schools, greater social capital, and more stable families. (2) Contrary to popular perception, economic mobility has not changed significantly over time; however, it is consistently lower in the U.S. than in most developed countries. [summary][paper] (The Equality of Opportunity Project)
The last point above is really important because if people in the U.S. want access to meritocracy and upward mobility, they would be better off in another country.
Also, while income gaps have increased in the U.S., the report concludes:
Contrary to the popular perception, we find that percentile rank-based measures of intergenerational mobility have remained extremely stable for the 1971-1993 birth cohorts. For example, the probability that a child reaches the top fifth of the income distribution given parents in the bottom fifth of the income distribution is 8.4% for children born in 1971, compared with 9.0% for those born in 1986. Children born to the highest-income families in 1984 were 74.5 percentage points more likely to attend college than those from the lowest-income families. The corresponding gap for children born in 1993 is 69.2 percentage points, suggesting that if anything mobility may have increased slightly in recent cohorts.
Upward mobility, then, has a fairly long history of being a misleading promise, and as noted above, a masking narrative like meritocracy. A more accurate narrative is the “birth lottery”:
Although rank-based measures of mobility remained stable, income inequality increased substantially over the period we study. Hence, the consequences of the “birth lottery” – the parents to whom a child is born – are larger today than in the past. A useful visual analogy…is to envision the income distribution as a ladder, with each percentile representing a different rung. The rungs of the ladder have grown further apart (inequality has increased), but children’s chances of climbing from lower to higher rungs have not changed (rank-based mobility has remained stable).
In fact the “birth lottery” remains more powerful than working hard to attend and complete college, as Matt Bruenig explains when answering What’s more important: a college degree or being born rich?:
So, you are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds, went to college and graduated. The disparity in the outcomes of rich and poor kids persists, not only when you control for college attainment, but even when you compare non-degreed rich kids to degreed poor kids!
Therefore, the answer to the question in the title is that you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree.
Hard work should matter, and all societies should work toward a meritocracy. But offering meritocracy, hard work, and upward mobility as contracts, instead of goals requiring collective activism, serves only the interests of the privileged—and certainly further erodes the promise of education and the status of the worker.
For high-poverty minority students, especially African American males, “Work hard. Be nice.” rings hollow against a shrinking labor market (even for college graduates), the ballooning debt associated with attending college, the inequity of discipline policies in schools, and the entrenched mass incarceration disproportionately impacting AA young men.
Instead of vapid sloganism, all students but especially students living poverty and minority students are better served by the words of James Baldwin:
I began by saying that one of the paradoxes of education was that precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society. It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person. And on the basis of the evidence – the moral and political evidence – one is compelled to say that this is a backward society. Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school, and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours of every day and would then return to their homes and to the streets, children who have an apprehension of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker, I would try to teach them – I would try to make them know – that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal. I would try to make each child know that these things are the result of a criminal conspiracy to destroy him. I would teach him that if he intends to get to be a man, he must at once decide that his is stronger than this conspiracy and they he must never make his peace with it. And that one of his weapons for refusing to make his peace with it and for destroying it depends on what he decides he is worth. I would teach him that there are currently very few standards in this country which are worth a man’s respect. That it is up to him to change these standards for the sake of the life and the health of the country.
* I was urged by a reader to note that the history of woman and work is impacted by race. African American women as workers have a history impacted by race and gender that is often ignored and is unique from white women’s (see, for example, Stay-at-home motherhood not an option for most black women). As well, women have varied and complex histories related to work that include unpaid domestic labor. My rhetorical strategies in this piece were not intended to trivialize, overgeneralize, or ignore any of these complex and important issues.