January 12, 2005
Income inequality in the U.S., the Economist warns, "is growing to levels not seen since the Gilded Age, around the 1880s. But social mobility is not increasing at anything like the same pace: would-be Horatio Algers are finding it no easier to climb from rags to riches, while the children of the privileged have a greater chance of staying at the top of the social heap." This, despite the fact that most Americans believe we live in a meritocracy. How can this be? The Economist finds two reasons: First, "the meritocratic revolution of the early 20th century has been at least half successful. Members of the American elite live in an intensely competitive universe. . . . Yet it is a competition among people very much like themselves - the offspring of a tiny sliver of society - rather than among the full range of talents that the country has to offer." Second, because "upward mobility is increasingly determined by education," which puts poor children at a double disadvantage because they attend inferior schools and are especially damaged by the legacy of what Michael Barone calls "soft America." "Soft America," according to the Economist, "is allergic to introducing accountability and measurement in education, particularly if it takes the form of merit pay for successful teachers or rewards for outstanding pupils." What's worse, "dumbed-down schools are particularly harmful to poor children, who are unlikely to be able to compensate for them at home." To add insult to serious injury, "America's great universities are increasingly reinforcing rather than reducing these educational inequalities. . . . Three-quarters of the students at the country's top 146 colleges come from the richest socio-economic [quartile], compared with just three percent who come from the poorest." Among the "shafts of sun on the horizon" cited by the article is No Child Left Behind, which "tries to use a mixture of tests and punishments for lousy schools to improve the performance of minority children," and the movement to end legacy preferences in elite colleges and universities.
"Ever higher society, ever harder to ascend," Economist, December 24, 2004 (subscription required)