The Limits Of Meritocracy

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Matt O’Brien discusses a new paper showing how even “poor kids who do everything right don’t do much better than rich kids who do everything wrong”:

You can see that in the above chart, based on a new paper from Richard Reeves and Isabel Sawhill, presented at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s annual conference, which is underway. Specifically, rich high school dropouts remain in the top about as much as poor college grads stay stuck in the bottom — 14 versus 16 percent, respectively. Not only that, but these low-income strivers are just as likely to end up in the bottom as these wealthy ne’er-do-wells. Some meritocracy.

What’s going on?

Well, it’s all about glass floors and glass ceilings. Rich kids who can go work for the family business — and, in Canada at least, 70 percent of the sons of the top 1 percent do just that — or inherit the family estate don’t need a high school diploma to get ahead. It’s an extreme example of what economists call “opportunity hoarding.” That includes everything from legacy college admissions to unpaid internships that let affluent parents rig the game a little more in their children’s favor.

Noting the abundance of other studies that point to this same class disparity, Freddie stresses that the notion of America as a pure meritocracy has been thoroughly debunked, even if many people still believe in it:

The question of how much control the average individual has over his or her own economic outcomes is not a theoretical or ideological question. What to do about the odds, that’s philosophical and political. But the power of chance and received advantage — those things can be measured, and have to be. And what we are finding, more and more, is that the outcomes of individuals are buffeted constantly by the forces of economic inequality. Education has been proffered as a tool to counteract these forces, but that claim, too, cannot withstand scrutiny. Redistributive efforts are required to address these differences in opportunity. In the meantime, it falls on us to chip away, bit by bit, on the lie of American meritocracy.