Unless we create an environment where everyone is guaranteed some minimum capabilities through some guarantee of minimum income, education, and healthcare, we cannot say that we have fair competition.
-Ha-Joon Chang, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism
When people debate equality and fairness (especially in the U.S.), many voice support for equality of opportunity and oppose equality of outcome. Equality of opportunity would endow all young people with an equal “chance” to find success. It further entails that merit alone should serve to separate “haves” from “have nots.” On the other hand, equality of outcome suggests that society should distribute resources equally regardless of one’s productivity or contribution.
Many would strongly argue against equality of outcome because it would slaughter individuals’ motivation to improve their skills and strive towards innovation, investment, or hard work. Social loafing would multiply for a good reason. Why work harder if we all get the same piece of pie? This is why communism failed, they say. Communism overestimated humanity’s altruism and underestimated its more selfish nature.
Fair enough. Most would not argue that a surgeon should receive the same pay as a gas station attendant. While both jobs serve a societal purpose, one requires far more education and training. Education and training are expensive, and therefore warrant higher compensation.
As a result, we ought to focus on equality of opportunity by striking down discriminatory statutes and racist practices that historically barred women, people of color, and other oppressed groups out of elite universities and high-paying professions. And since the fall of Jim Crow, many have declared victory.
“Why are you complaining? There is no law that says you can’t go to Stanford. There is no law that says you cannot become a doctor, or lawyer, or any other profession.”
However, Chang argues that eradicating discriminatory laws and policies is insufficient to produce true “equality of opportunity.” Equality of opportunity surpasses telling everyone that success is metaphysically possible.
But many will point to a handful of underprivileged individuals who found incredible success. Sure, someone who comes from a less advantaged background has a chance to attend an elite university and find a career that lifts their family’s income and social status. Isn’t that one of the de facto cheers of America?
“Anyone can succeed! You just have to work hard!”
But are these anecdotes alone sufficient proof of a level playing field? Some would disagree.
But just because anyone can succeed doesn’t mean that opportunity is equal. Any one person can win the lottery assuming they buy a ticket. However, individuals all have a different number of lottery tickets. And some do not have the resources to buy a ticket at all.
In the U.S., most citizens have an upward mobility “lottery ticket.” But I worry that those who trumpet “anyone can succeed” fall for the confirmation bias. They focus on a handful of people who have socially ascended while ignoring the hundreds of thousands that have failed and socially declined – often through no fault of their own.
“Not everyone can be successful. Not everyone can have a ‘good’ job. Of course, there are ‘winners’ and ‘losers.’ If there wasn’t, then America would be a Communist wasteland praising equality of outcome while citizens waited in line for two hours for a loaf of bread.”
True. But to be poor in America is not just a matter of working in a less prestigious job. It is a Sisyphean cauldron of stress. Housing, food, and healthcare – the basic prerequisites for a secure life – hang by a thread. Sure, you can survive month-to-month as long as nothing goes wrong. But how often does nothing go wrong? Maybe a child becomes sick and medical bills pile up. Maybe someone loses their job because they were late again after just missing their transfer bus. One setback can spell devastation for the poor working class.
And in these struggling households, millions of American children have to grow up. Many attend underperforming, underfunded schools. Many either wake up or go to bed hungry. Many have to babysit siblings while their parents work or find a part-time job to support their family in lieu of studying. Do a lucky few of these disadvantaged children find a way out? Sure. Does it take Herculean hard work and grit? Absolutely. And for every one child that succeeds, tens of thousands fail. And we as a society pay the price.
Removing overt discriminatory laws and policies is not enough to ensure a level playing field. If upward mobility in America is like a footrace, we now allow all people to run. But some people still have to run with 10-pound ankle weights.
I did not grow up poor. Maybe I don’t really understand. Perhaps I am ignorant. But I do believe that poverty, chronic homelessness, and food insecurity is a reality for far too many American children. And as long as this continues to be a reality, how can we turn around as say that everyone in America has a “fair shot”?
It’s true. Not everyone will achieve the same level of success. But the U.S. is the richest nation in the world in terms of GDP. Surely we can afford to raise our economic floor so no citizen has to worry about finding a roof over their heads or food to eat. If we could guarantee these necessities to all citizens through a more universal and less-stigmatized welfare system, imagine what those previously impoverished citizens will be capable of. Imagine what more their children will be capable of.
Does the rising tide not raise all ships?
Then why not raise the floor?