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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.

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3 Responses to “Why Equal Opportunity Does Not Exist in the U.S.”

  1. Benjamin Skyler Hill on February 20th, 2015 1:24 pm

    I respect you from an intellectual standpoint, as you have done research to support your ideas. However, I must say that I disagree with you and I would like to share my own thoughts here.

    My discrepancies are not with the statistics. As far as I can tell, they have been listed correctly. My discrepancy lies, rather, with your interpretation of the phrase “equal opportunity.”

    The only way that a society could possibly attempt to guarantee completely “equal opportunity” would be to guarantee equality of economic and social outcome: that is, to rigidly assign children to a situation in which they ALL attend the same school, are raised by the same parents, possess the same interests and goals, grow among the same community, etc. This is clearly not feasible or desirable.

    Yes, children have different opportunities as they are all unique in origin and select different life paths. Therefore, it is not exactly equal. This is precisely the reason that I have learned that the American mantra of “equal opportunity” actually takes the following meaning: every citizen ought to have the equal opportunity to exercise his God-given natural right to pursue happiness in whatsoever manner he chooses to.”

    The issue of “inequality” in the U.S. is a non-issue. It is a necessity in a free society. As it was once anonymously put, “free people are not equal and equal people are not free.” To say that those born into a poor family are 600 times “less likely” to succeed seems to imply that it is much more set in stone than is actually the case. Simply because a group of people is prone to making certain decisions and choosing particular paths in life does not necessarily mean that they are being deprived of a chance to succeed in one way or another.

    Now, this is not necessarily to say that there is no problem with the way that our society is run. I also am not satisfied with the status-quo. This brings me to my second point of disagreement with you: your proposed solution.

    You say in the conclusion of your article 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.” This is a truly broad statement with several ways in which it could be interpreted, and–quite honestly–it scares me. To me, it appears that the only possible way to achieve this is to grant a governing body expansive and loosely-defined powers to provide these opportunities to people. There is one problem I see with this school of thought: when a government begins to guarantee things for people that are not rights, it is quite dangerous, indeed.

    Something is not a right if it bestows an obligation onto someone else to provide it. For example, a job is not a right, because if it were, then it would place the burden upon employers to provide these jobs–regardless of whether or not it was in their self-interest.

    The only things that truly are human rights are those things that do not place any obligation upon anyone else. Those things are the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

    It is not anybody’s place to “provide” opportunities to anyone if something must be taken from somebody else to do so. To do this is to rob society of what true equality is: the freedom of all to make decisions as they please and to suffer the lawful consequences: whether they be positive or negative. Milton Friedman provides perhaps the best possible concluding statement to this topic with his declaration that “a society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will achieve a great degree of both.”


    William Newton Reply:

    Firstly, thank you for your response; I appreciate that you took the time to read and respond to my article. I would like to clarify what the central message of my story is: it is not to say that we as a society should guarantee equal opportunity, as you have suggested, but rather to dispel the somewhat prevalent myth (at least at my school) that equal opportunity does exist in the U.S. The large majority of my article is dedicated to using research and statistics to explain that the idea of equal opportunity is a myth and that the apparent discrepancy between the opportunities available to children born into low income families and children born into high income families is alarmingly large.

    To address your second point, I am in no way trying to advocate a specific method for addressing the problem of inequality. Instead, I am attempting to reveal and explain that this problem exists in our country by using legitimate research and statistics. The statement at the end of my story is purposefully broad; it is meant to get people to think about this issue and its potential solutions, not to offer an actual policy recommendation.


  2. Tom Church on April 5th, 2017 9:00 pm

    While I congratulate your excellent research on this topic, I must say that you are more focused on equality of outcome instead of equality of opportunity. In America, everyone has an equal opportunity for success. This means that you will not be denied a job, apartment, loan, etc. due to your demographic (race, class, gender, religion, etc.). If you are, then this person is breaking the law. Equality of outcome is what you are describing, which is socialism and evil. The only way to accomplish this is through government theft and redistribution, or through a completely fascist regime. However, I recognise that you are indeed not trying to suggest a solution, only present the problem. Only, it is a non-issue. Inequality of wealth does not and should not matter. I know I will never make as much as Bill Gates, but I should not care. Bill Gate’s salary has nothing to do with mine. The government’s only role in my eyes is to secure the people’s rights (equal income is not a right) and to protect its people.

    I am sorry if I ranted too much, or I became too partisan. Great work on your research nonetheless.



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