“Equality of Opportunity” is Killing Our Kids

scantronLast week on This American Life the episode was called Back to School. It was very good—as always. It discussed non-cognitive skills and how they are perhaps more important to how well a student does in life than cognitive skills. In fact, one expert noted that the modern testing fascination is geared not to what matters most, but to what is easiest to test. We test math because it is easy to test, even though impulse control (which is hard to test) is certainly as important. It is like the old joke of the guy looking under a street light for his lost keys, even though he dropped them half a block away. “The light’s better here.” Everyone sees the ridiculousness of the joke even while they continue to think that testing is a panacea.

Another point brought up is how students from low income families are harmed by the stress in their lives. And they are particularly harmed in terms of non-cognitive skills. It is hard to have good impulse control when you are stressed to the breaking point. A doctor who has studied this used a peculiar example. She mentioned seeing violence on the streets. I’m sure that’s an issue, but I don’t think it is the main one.

You may have read about the drop in life expectancies of the least educated whites over the last two decades. This is not a small drop; it is 4 years; that’s 5% of a life! It isn’t clear what the problem is, so we get a laundry list:

The reasons for the decline remain unclear, but researchers offered possible explanations, including a spike in prescription drug overdoses among young whites, higher rates of smoking among less educated white women, rising obesity, and a steady increase in the number of the least educated Americans who lack health insurance.

Kathleen Geier has a different take on this. She notes that the Whitehall Studies of British civil servants found that those at lower pay grades had higher mortality rates than those at higher grades. She continues:

I believe that inequality-related stressors are likely to be the determining factors in declining American life expectancies, as well. I’m surprised, in fact, that the Times article did not specifically identify inequality as a causal factor, because the health risks associated with economic inequality are well-established in the scientific literature. For decades, the United States has been making a series of political choices that has distributed wealth and power upwards and left working Americans not only poorer and sicker, but also feeling far more burdened and distressed, and experiencing far less security and control over their lives.

The biggest problem that I see in the lives of poor people I know is economic uncertainty. There may be all kinds of stressors beyond it, but they are fleeting. Economic insecurity hangs over every minute of the day and blankets yours dreams at night. And this is not just true of adults; children feel it profoundly, even or perhaps especially because they don’t understand it.

There is a recent conservative meme to the effect of, “We believe in equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes.” It sounds great, right? But what it really means is, “We believe in inequality of opportunity, and inequality of outcomes.” The fact is that there cannot be equality of opportunity if the outcomes are too unequal.

Leave aside issues like local funding of school districts where rich kids have good public schools and poor kids have bad public schools.[1] If a child’s home life is bad, his success in school and life will be bad. If we really care about having some amount of equality of opportunity we must work to provide everyone with a living wage and some semblance of security.


[1] So many things go along with this. The Richmond Public Library, for example, is a terrible place. They have two ancient computers and a very old collection. By comparison, the Sonoma Country Library is the bright city on the hill. Of course, it is nothing like the libraries around my sister in Agoura Hills.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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