In the Seinfeld episode “The Hamptons,” viewers watch yet another clash between the essentially soulless main characters as they interact with the very white and privileged “real world” surrounding them in the sitcom. The crux of this episode revolves around one couple having a baby, and then what occurs when reality clashes with civility:
Jerry: Is it me or was that the ugliest baby you have ever seen?
Elaine: Uh, I couldn’t look. It was like the Pekinese.
Jerry: Boy, a little too much chlorine in that gene pool. (They sit) And, you know, the thing is, they’re never gonna know, no one’s ever gonna tell them. (See transcript here.)
Setting aside what this scene (again) reveals about Jerry and Elaine, an important message we can draw from this tension is that most people genuinely do not want to face the harsh truth, especially when that harsh truth contradicts their beliefs.
As I have examined before, the U.S. is overwhelmingly a belief culture, committed to our cultural myths even and especially when those myths have no basis in evidence.
When I have approached the overwhelming evidence that poverty is destiny, I receive angry challenges from people all along the spectrum of ideologies Right and Left, but I also have people who align themselves with me send pleas that I stop such nonsense: Rejecting hard truths has no ideological boundary.
However, in the U.S. both poverty and affluence are destiny, and those who shudder at that reality are confusing verbs: Yes, poverty should not be destiny, but false claims will never allow us to achieve that ideal.
So this leads me to a parallel harsh truth: Education is not the great equalizer (and, again, education should be the great equalizer, but making that claim when it isn’t a reality is inexcusable.)
One convenient way to describe what’s going on is that rich kids are more likely to get a better education, which translates into being richer and wealthier as adults. It is certainly the case that richer kids are more likely to get a college degree, and it is certainly the case that getting a college degree leaves you much better off on average than not getting one. But this does not explain the full picture of social immobility. Take a look at this super-complicated chart, which I will describe below….
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.
In the U.S., powerful mythologies drive a faith in social mobility (connected to working hard, being well educated, and achievement coming to those who merit that success), but also foster counter-narratives that are essentially ugly and unwarranted: those who are poor or fail are lazy, underserving (read Scarcity for a powerful and evidence-based look at how poverty overwhelms people instead of poverty results from flawed individuals).
The evidence is overwhelming and growing, however, that education is not the great equalizer and that poverty/affluence remain essentially destiny, as reported by Juana Summers at NPR:
Education is historically considered to be the thing that levels the playing field, capable of lifting up the less advantaged and improving their chances for success.
“Play by the rules, work hard, apply yourself and do well in school, and that will open doors for you,” is how Karl Alexander, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist, puts it.
But a study published in June suggests that the things that really make the difference — between prison and college, success and failure, sometimes even life and death — are money and family.
In The Long Shadow, Alexander, Entwistle, and Olson “followed nearly 800 Baltimore schoolchildren for a quarter of a century, and discovered that their fates were substantially determined by the family they were born into,” Rosen explains, discovering:
- Almost none of the children from low-income families made it through college. Of the children from low-income families, only 4 percent had a college degree at age 28, compared to 45 percent of the children from higher-income backgrounds. “That’s a shocking tenfold difference across social lines,” Alexander said.
- Among those who did not attend college, white men from low-income backgrounds found the best-paying jobs. Although they had the lowest rate of college attendance and completion, white men from low-income backgrounds found high-paying jobs in what remained of Baltimore’s industrial economy. At age 28, 45 percent of them were working in construction trades and industrial crafts, compared with 15 percent of black men from similar backgrounds and virtually no women. In those trades, whites earned, on average, more than twice what blacks made. Those well-paying blue collar jobs are not as abundant as during the years after World War II, but they still exist, and a large issue today is who gets them: Among high school dropouts, at age 22, 89 percent of white dropouts were working compared with 40 percent of black dropouts.
- White women from low-income backgrounds benefit financially from marriage and stable live-in partnerships. Though both white and black women who grew up in lower-income households earned less than white men, when you consider household income, white women reached parity with white men—because they were married to them. Black women not only had low earnings, they were less likely than whites to be in stable family unions and so were less likely to benefit from a spouse’s earnings. White and black women from low-income households also had similar teen birth rates, but white women more often had a spouse or partner, a relationship that helped mitigate the challenges. “It is access to good paying work that perpetuates the privilege of working class white men over working class black men,” Alexander said. “By partnering with these men, white working class women share in that privilege.”
- Better-off white men were most likely to abuse drugs. Better-off white men had the highest self-reported rates of drug use, binge drinking, and chronic smoking, followed in each instance by white men of disadvantaged families; in addition, all these men reported high levels of arrest. At age 28, 41 percent of white men—and 49 percent of black men—from low-income backgrounds had a criminal conviction, but the white employment rate was much higher. The reason, Alexander says, is that blacks don’t have the social networks whites do to help them find jobs despite these roadblocks.
The realities of class and race in the U.S. are far removed from simplistic slogans.
And the relationship between education and opportunity proves to be again and again, misleading. The SAT remains a powerful gatekeeper for college, despite SAT scores being less effective than GPA (actual merit) for determining who attends college.
More disturbing, however, is that access to education provides cover for the what truly matters in the U.S.: as The Long Shadow and Bruenig document, the coincidences of birth—money and family (and not merit).
While I maintain that hollow slogans (“education is the great equalizer”) prove to be “myths that deform,”  and thus work against our ideals, I am not calling for some sort of callous fatalism.
The first step toward “poverty is not destiny” and “education is the great equalizer” is naming the current failures in order to establish actions and policies that would shift the existing, and ugly, realities: poverty and affluence are destiny and wealth/family trump merit (such as education)—all of which are magnified by lingering racism.
Next, we must confront our assumptions about who is wealthy and who is impoverished, coupled with ending cultural demands that the impoverished work twice as hard and that the disadvantaged conform to higher moral and ethical standards. As Oscar Wilde eloquently argued:
The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism – are forced, indeed, so to spoil them. They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this….[I]t is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease….
And in this recognition, Wilde rejects those “remedies”:
They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor….
It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair….
Sometimes the poor are praised for being thrifty. But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less. For a town or country labourer to practise thrift would be absolutely immoral. Man should not be ready to show that he can live like a badly-fed animal.
It is, then, ours to reject both “exaggerated altruism” and base fatalism; instead, we must commit to the following:
- Name and recognize inequity without stooping to demonizing people. In our current commitments to meritocracy myths, we demonize the poor; but it does no one any good to simply shift who we demonize. Our enemy is inequity, and solutions to inequity rest in changing powerful social dynamics and not with “fixing” flawed (or promoting idealized and false portraits of “successful”) individuals.
- Stop promoting false myths to children because as they grow up, they come to see the myth as a lie, and thus, the entire promise of the American Dream is tarnished.
- Commit to social and education policy grounded in equity, and not in competition or market forces.
We need a new way to speak to our children. And we must begin here: “We have not yet created the country we want, and we must admit life continues to be too often unfair. But things can be better, and we are here to help because you can live in a world more fair than the one we have given you.”
Success in the U.S. is not the result of “grit,” not the consequence of some people being more determined (“better”) than others. Many people worker harder than others, but remain impoverished, have less access to opportunities. None of this should be true, but it is.
Ultimately, however, we must put our money and actions where our words take us. Otherwise, as John Gardner warned, equity, fairness, and justice become “cheap streamers in the rain.”
 “[A]s we put into practice an education that critically provokes the learner’s consciousness, we are necessarily working against myths that deform us. As we confront such myths, we also face the dominant power because those myths are nothing but the expression of this power, of its ideology.” (Freire, 2005, p. 75)
Freire, P. (2005). Teachers as cultural workers: Letters to those who dare to teach (D. Macedo, D. Koike, & A. Oliveira, Trans.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.