Tuesday, October 1, 2013

No Longer the Land of Opportunity

mer·i·toc·ra·cy [ mèrri tókrəssee ]  
system based on ability: a social system that gives opportunities and advantages to people on the basis of their ability rather than, e.g. their wealth or seniority
A number of years ago at work, my boss decided to have some chit-chat with his minions.  The conversation eventually centered on how he thought that pro athletes were way overpaid and didn’t deserve it.
I then said, “At least the sports world is more of a meritocracy than this place.”  He then laughed at the funny word that he thought I made up and walked away.  If I had the chance to explain what I meant, I would have said that anyone who showed enough talent and hard work could get a job just like those “overpaid” stars.  On the other hand, opportunity in the corporate world is often dictated by politics instead of hard work and ability.
Speaking of what we call the land of opportunity, I am reminded of a song that first came out in 1963 by Jay and the Americans called Only in America whose lyrics include:
Only in America
Can a guy from anywhere
Go to sleep a pauper and wake up a millionaire

Only in America
Can a kid without a cent
Get a break and maybe grow up to be President

Only in America
Land of opportunity, yeah
Back then, maybe there was something to all of this.  So most of us didn’t get rich but we all had the chance for jobs to put us in the middle class and for those going to college, maybe do better.  But not today where many of the so-called working class are trying to get by on at or near minimum wage.  And as many as 45% of college graduates are living with their families because they cannot make enough to support themselves.  Some opportunity! 
Some say that our biggest crisis is our growing wealth and income inequality.  But I think that our chronic scarcity of well-paying jobs is one of the biggest contributors to the growing inequality.  When there aren’t enough jobs for qualified applicants, too many able people can’t put their skills and talents to use so they can better themselves. 
And while the above song lyrics dream about a kid without a cent growing up to be president, looking at our recent presidents along with our Supreme Court justices, it sure as hell helps if you went to either Harvard or Yale.
It’s an interesting subject of debate whether the Ivys and other selective colleges provide a better education than other less expensive schools.  But what is undeniable is that graduates of the most prestigious schools have access to more open doors than others, not just due to the prestige of the institution but also likely due to the quality of the networking contacts between graduates and alumni at these schools.
In addition to the cost of getting into the more selective colleges, a top notch preparatory education is also necessary to have a fighting chance of getting admitted.  Those who can afford to live in more affluent areas with fine school districts (or the means to go to private schools) are way ahead of those in poorer school districts where their limited tax base often results in their cutting courses to be able to stay above water.
And while a college and high school education is known to be important for the opportunities available to our children, it is easy to dismiss the value of preschool education which poorer children often don’t have access to.  This is far more than glorified babysitting!  Those with access to Early Learning programs are in more of a position to thrive upon entering school while those without access to these programs are playing catch-up from the start.
In addition, with the scarcity of well-paying jobs out there, more corporations actually have the chutzpah to require graduates to serve in unpaid internships to gain a foothold in a company they are interested in working for.  Less affluent graduates who are worried about paying off college loans don’t have the luxury of working for free.
So simply put, those of means have the best crack at the best jobs while others are often left on the outside looking in.  And this can’t help but make the gap between the haves and have nots greater.
It’s easier to dismiss all of this by saying that opportunity in America is a whole lot better than in some third world country.  That’s true enough but this is comparing apples and oranges.  Studies have shown that America has less social mobility than, say Canada or most of the countries in Europe.  Children in this country born into poverty are actually more likely to stay there than in other countries.  It is estimated that about 22% of American children overall are living in poverty (with blacks and Hispanics at a much higher rate) which for the wealthiest nation in the world should be unacceptable.  But instead, there are some in Congress who would cut Food Stamps that would help these children. Only in America!