Monday, January 9, 2012

The American caste system

The New York Times last week had a report about how the myth of the American meritocracy is just that - a myth. In fact, of all the countries in the industrialized world, it is harder for a person of low economic status to rise higher in the United States than it is almost anywhere else. If America as the "land of opportunity" ever existed, it has disappeared, and this is primarily due to the policies pursued by the government. The governments of other developed countries make it their goal to protect and help their citizenry and to take care of those who are least able to take care of themselves. In this country, the government only very begrudgingly assists at all, and thus the poorest must fend for themselves and find ways to improve their economic lot if that is to be done and there will roadblocks all along the way to a better life. Roadblocks put in place and defended unto death by the government.

This is not a pretty picture and it is certainly not the image that most Americans have of their country. Unfortunately, our government is in the grip of heartless people whose extreme wealth separates them from the masses of citizens. They've got theirs, often from the hands of lobbyists for corporations they should be regulating, and they couldn't care less about helping their fellow citizens better themselves. Thus, the country is well on its way to establishing a hide-bound caste system - whatever caste you are born into will determine your lot in life and will be the caste that you die in.

Paul Krugman's column in The Times today is on that topic, the unlevel playing field. Krugman almost always nails it in his columns, but never has he done it so well, in my opinion as in today's column. You can follow the link to read the entire piece, but let me quote extensively here:
Americans are much more likely than citizens of other nations to believe that they live in a meritocracy. But this self-image is a fantasy...America actually stands out as the advanced country in which it matters most who your parents were, the country in which those born on one of society’s lower rungs have the least chance of climbing to the top or even to the middle.
And if you ask why America is more class-bound in practice than the rest of the Western world, a large part of the reason is that our government falls down on the job of creating equal opportunity. 
The failure starts early: in America, the holes in the social safety net mean that both low-income mothers and their children are all too likely to suffer from poor nutrition and receive inadequate health care. It continues once children reach school age, where they encounter a system in which the affluent send their kids to good, well-financed public schools or, if they choose, to private schools, while less-advantaged children get a far worse education.
Once they reach college age, those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds are far less likely to go to college — and vastly less likely to go to a top-tier school — than those luckier in their parentage. At the most selective, “Tier 1” schools, 74 percent of the entering class comes from the quarter of households that have the highest “socioeconomic status”; only 3 percent comes from the bottom quarter.
And if children from our society’s lower rungs do manage to make it into a good college, the lack of financial support makes them far more likely to drop out than the children of the affluent, even if they have as much or more native ability. One long-term study by the Department of Education found that students with high test scores but low-income parents were less likely to complete college than students with low scores but affluent parents — loosely speaking, that smart poor kids are less likely than dumb rich kids to get a degree.
As Americans look at and evaluate candidates for political office in this very political year, they would do very well to look at whether they appear to be interested in making the field more level for all of us or whether they are only interested in protecting their own "caste." Or to quote Krugman further:
Think about it: someone who really wanted equal opportunity would be very concerned about the inequality of our current system. He would support more nutritional aid for low-income mothers-to-be and young children. He would try to improve the quality of public schools. He would support aid to low-income college students. And he would support what every other advanced country has, a universal health care system, so that nobody need worry about untreated illness or crushing medical bills.
If Mr. Romney has come out for any of these things, I’ve missed it. And the Congressional wing of his party seems determined to make upward mobility even harder. For example, Republicans have tried to slash funds for the Women, Infants and Children program, which helps provide adequate nutrition to low-income mothers and their children; they have demanded cuts in Pell grants, which are designed to help lower-income students afford college.
And they have, of course, pledged to repeal a health reform that, for all its imperfections, would finally give Americans the guaranteed care that everyone else in the advanced world takes for granted.
So where is the evidence that Mr. Romney or his party actually believes in equal opportunity? Judging by their actions, they seem to prefer a society in which your station in life is largely determined by that of your parents — and in which the children of the very rich get to inherit their estates tax-free. Teddy Roosevelt would not have approved. 
Right on, Dr. Krugman. One can only hope that your fellow Americans will heed your words.

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