Why Equal Opportunity Does Not Exist in the U.S.
February 6, 2015
“All Americans have an opportunity for success.” This statement has long been an American ideal, and it may very well be true, but by adding one word to this statement, it transforms from a likely reality to a nearly certain falsity:
“All Americans have an EQUAL opportunity for success.”
There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that suggests that the above statement simply is not the case, and that the wealth of the family into which someone is born plays an instrumental role in determining the likelihood of that person receiving a higher education and achieving monetary success in their life.
A Child’s Family Wealth Affects Their Chance of Receiving a College Degree
In twenty-first century America, a college education is crucial in determining job success. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, those whose highest level of education is a high school degree have a 7.5 percent unemployment rate while those who have graduated college have only a 4.0 percent unemployment rate. Additionally, a college degree results in a significantly higher average weekly salary.
A child’s family wealth plays an instrumental role in determining how likely that child is to receive a college education. According to the NBER Working Papers, children born into families in the bottom quartile economically only complete college 9 percent of the time while those born into the top quartile economically complete college a staggering 54 percent of the time. That means children born into top-quartile families are 600 percent more likely to complete college. There is a somewhat prevalent misconception that lower-income children have an equal opportunity at receiving higher education, but this obviously could not be farther from the truth. Lower-income children have a monumental disadvantage at receiving a college degree for perhaps the most valuable tool someone could have entering the modern workforce.
A Child’s Family Wealth Affects Their Chance of Monetary Success as an Adult
Data from NBER research shows that there is also a direct correlation between the wealth that children attain as adults and the wealth of the families into which they were born. That is, children born into lower income families, on average, tend to make significantly less money as adults than do those born into higher income families. Research from the Brookings Institution revealed that only 6 percent of children born into families in the bottom-fifth of the country economically ever reach the top-fifth economically as adults. That small percentage appears still smaller when compared to the amount of children born into the top-fifth economically that end up in the top-fifth as adults: 39 percent. That means that a child born into a family in the top-fifth economically is 650 percent more likely to end up in that same top-fifth as an adult than is a child born into the bottom-fifth.
What Does This Mean?
In today’s society, it is evident that equal opportunity does not exist: children born into high-income families are 600 percent more likely to complete a college degree and 650 percent more likely to end up in the top-quintile economically as adults than are children born into low-income families.
This doesn’t mean that children born into low income families are completely powerless to reach the upper-class, nor does it mean that children born into high income families are absolutely guaranteed to stay in the upper-class; the data simply represents the general trend.
It means that we as a society should at the very least be aware of this discrepancy and recognize that not every child in the country is fortunate enough to have the same family wealth and opportunities that those in high-income families have. Beyond that, we should work to minimize the inequality in opportunity so that children born into low-income families truly can have a comparable opportunity at success to children from high-income families.
Almost every American child aspires to achieve success in their life, and it is wrong and unfair that an uncontrollable factor for every child – their family’s established wealth – plays such a formative role in determining how likely they are to achieve this. It is our job to change this.