WaPo Wants You to Know Just How Hard It Is
News stories like this infuriate me. Not for nearly the same reasons as it seems to bother my social media ecosphere today.
America is the land of opportunity, just for some more than others. […]
It’s depressing, but not nearly so much as this:
Even poor kids who do everything right don’t do much better than rich kids who do everything wrong. Advantages and disadvantages, in other words, tend to perpetuate themselves. 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.
“Some meritocracy.” Some reporting. I want to be glib, pithy, perhaps even witty. But I can’t bring myself to it, because this is just so discouraging, thoughtless, and disingenuous. I have to go straight into it, starting with the last.
This is what I like to call “not lying”. Mr. O’Brien here didn’t tell any lies. But he painted a picture that is just as deceitful.
I’m going to set aside the fact that he pulled one bar each (out of five) from two graphs in a 55-page paper to make his point. It’s shady, but is only a distraction from the larger point.
In our political environment we’re constantly presented with the cycle of poverty. We learn that those at the bottom stay at the bottom because they’re held down by society or greed or racism. We learn that those at the top stay at the top because of theft, oppression, and “opportunity hoarding.” And then someone shows a graph like this to prove it.
But this graph doesn’t prove anything of the sort. This graph actually demonstrates that if you work hard, you’re going to move up – like the 84% of poor college grads who move out of the bottom quintile. And if you’re a lazy jackass, you’re going to move down, like the 86% of loser rich kids.
Sure, in the end, the distribution is the same. But the truth is in one set of numbers: who moved up, and who moved down. And the overwhelming numbers show that the meritocracy is working.
I’m also not even sure O’Brien read the report. If he had, he might have seen this interesting bit:
By contrast, absolute mobility rates are all about dollar amounts. In Winship’s terms, “absolute mobility ignores rankings and simply considers whether adults tend to have higher, size-adjusted incomes than their parents did at the same age, after taking into account increases in the cost of living.”
Most people are upwardly mobile in the absolute sense: 84 percent of U.S. adults, according to the latest estimates.7 Those raised in families towards the bottom of the income distribution are the most likely to overtake their parents’ income status.
Even if he hadn’t, this graph says it all:
Adjusted for inflation, 84% of Americans make more than their parents. And look at the distribution – it’s skewed in favor of the poor. This is good news! Sure, there are difficulties that affect the poor, there are social and institutional problems that still exist, and we have work to do. But this report is full of encouraging information. But that doesn’t fit the narrative, so instead O’Brien talks about glass floors and opportunity hoarding.
And that’s what’s most appalling about this type of story. These results are encouraging. They should be taken to every impoverished school district, every community meeting in a languishing neighborhood, and every school board and PTA meeting in a minority district. When you work hard, you can succeed. The odds are overwhelmingly (84%!) in your favor. Keep trying.
But instead, we tell the people with the hardest road and the most obstacles before them, that the game is rigged. That even if they “do everything right”, they’ll still fail, because rich families are hoarding. The message is clear: you’re probably not going to succeed, no matter what you do. And when you fail, it won’t be your fault. So you might as well not even try.
This is a devastating attitude that is reinforced constantly through a politics of victimhood. It robs disadvantaged populations of the only things they have – pride, desire, and hope – and gives them only dependence and excuses in exchange. Then it keeps them focused on what others should be doing for them, instead of what they could be doing for themselves. The result is a tragedy, and that is infuriating.