America’s unlevel playing field
Last month President Barack Obama gave a speech invoking the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt on behalf of progressive ideals — and Republicans were not happy. Mitt Romney, in particular, insisted that where Roosevelt believed that “ government should level the playing field to create equal opportunities,” Obama believes that “government should create equal outcomes,” and that we should have a society where “ everyone receives the same or similar rewards, regardless of education, effort and willingness to take risk.”
As many people were quick to point out, this portrait of the president as radical redistributionist was pure fiction. What hasn’t been as widely noted, however, is that Romney’s picture of himself as a believer in a level playing field is just as fictional.
Where is the evidence that he or his party cares at all about equality of opportunity?
Let’s talk for a minute about the actual state of the playing field.
Americans are much more likely than citizens of other nations to believe that they live in a meritocracy. But this selfimage is a fantasy: As a report in The New York Times last week pointed out, 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 the United States 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 the United States, 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 toptier 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 come 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.
It’s no wonder, then, that Horatio Alger stories, tales of poor kids who make good, are much less common in reality than they are in legend — and much less common in America than they are in Canada or Europe. Which brings me back to those, like Romney, who claim to believe in equality of opportunity. Where is the evidence for that claim?
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 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 lowincome 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 Romney or his party actually believe 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.
Paul Krugman writes for The New York Times.