Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Inequality and a Level Playing Field

There's a lot of talk these days about inequality and whether we have a level playing field in this country. Democrats and liberals are most likely to argue that it's not, while Republicans and conservatives are pretty certain that everyone has the same opportunities in America, and success comes from hard work or a lack of it.

That said, there's some fascinating brain research going on these days about the formative years and their impact on education and success. For example, a child who doesn't form close personal attachments in his first twenty months will suffer this inability to develop bonds and relationships throughout life. Thus, he will glean far less from opportunities to learn. And a child from low socioeconomic backgrounds might enter kindergarten trailing middle class students by as many as 1,500 words. In all tests, he will statistically never catch up, as literacy builds on itself. So, not equal. Not even close.

Thus, noting what has been acknowledged by most about about deficits in family background and stability, there is not a level playing field in society. The difference between my experience going to Catholic school in a nice suburb and that of a child growing up in public housing is vastly different. And, the benefit I received being in classes with the kids in my neighborhood - all of whom had two college educated parents and many stay-at-home moms - is monumentally different from growing up around kids whose parents represent all the social ills. Thus, it's not simply about a lack of desire to succeed or a failure to work hard. All the brain research points out that you can't just pin failure on a poor kid's lack of will power to "rise above his adversity." Arguing otherwise is what it was like in Dickensian England when the Victorians just concluded the poor were poor because they were a bunch of lazy, drunk, horny morons.

Granted, there is much abuse and perpetuation of these ills. The problem is that liberals and Democrats grossly over-complicate things, and conservatives and Republicans grossly oversimplify them. And David Brooks has artfully explained this acknowledging that it still makes no sense to just drop out of school even if everyone in your neighborhood is. But there is much society can and should do to correct some of the ills. Universal preschool is an example. Since, currently middle class kids can afford it - and don't even really need it - and poor kids can't and desperately do need it. The reformers in Dickens' time were the first to say maybe we could do something to help. Then the progressives picked it up in the American twentieth century.

But it's not a level playing field, and there is no way to argue that all kids and people have equal opportunities. Any time spent with a spectrum of young people clarifies this. It's not a level field - it's a minefield and a battlefield for many, and others just a really lonely desert. And it's really, really sad.


Darren said...

How do you propose that government clear the mines and level the field? Because I know that's what you propose.

mmazenko said...

Oh, pretty much anything George Will argued in Statecraft as Soulcraft, or any recommendation from James Wilson or much of David Brooks.