Jonathan Chait

The Equality Of Opportunity Fallacy

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The notion that the gap between the rich and the non-rich largely reflects differences in effort and innate skill is a crucial premise of right-wing economic thought. Here, for instance, is how Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute and evangelist against any form of income distribution, puts it:

In America we stand for equality. But for the large majority of us, this means equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome.

If you are like most Americans, you believe we all should start at more or less the same place with more or less the same opportunities to succeed in life. But you also believe that, within reason, it's perfectly all right if we end up in different places.

If you are in the 70 percent majority, you believe that everyone should get a chance to succeed. Or everyone should fail on his or her own merits. If this leads to income inequality -- above some acceptable floor -- so be it.

How closely does that model reflect reality? Not remotely. David Leonhardt has a great column today about the upper-class tilt of selective colleges. Now, you might say this is just how the cookie crumbles. Rich kids have better genes, or more diligent parenting, which makes them better students who naturally occupy a larger share of the elite college student body. Leonhardt notes that even poorer students who were able to overcome environmental odds to excel in school are still less likely to attend selective universities:

The truth is that many of the most capable low- and middle-income students attend community colleges or less selective four-year colleges close to their home. Doing so makes them less likely to graduate from college at all, research has shown. Incredibly, only 44 percent of low-income high school seniors with high standardized test scores enroll in a four-year college, according to a Century Foundation report  compared with about 50 percent of high-income seniors who have average test scores.

Meanwhile, the Republican budget (created by Brooks's co-author and close ally Paul Ryan) would exacerbate this disparity by slashing Pell Grants, thus accelerating the process by which elite universities amplify the advantages and disadvantages of birth.

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