I was introduced to a very interesting book by Henry Farrell, a political science professor at George Washington University. This last term, he has had a reading group with seven female seniors and most recently, they read Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality. The book looks at how the party culture works for affluent people, because they don’t need hard majors with good GPAs. Their social connections and financial resources will land them in a good place after college. But poorer kids end up being pulled into the party culture where they end up without bankable skills and often without even a degree. And they are usually saddled with debt. Meritocracy rules!
Farrell’s group affirms the book’s findings on the micro-scale. And there is much more to the book on that level. Much of it is terribly troubling, including how the party culture puts women much more in threat of sexual assault. What’s more, the college administrations seem to either be unaware of the problem or disinterested. And you can see why. If they wanted to do something about the problem, they would have to sit the poorer students down and tell them: you aren’t equal to the rich kids; you can’t act like them. And that is anathema to the mythology of America.
I’m more interested in the book on the macro-scale. According to conservatives, income inequality is all about education. If the poor would just get educated, everything would be fine. Now, it turns out this is not true. Education is a small part of the problem, but that’s all. Paying for the Party illustrates this.
Inequality in this country is best thought of the same way that institutional racism is—of course, they are very often one and the same thing. The best case scenario based upon the book is that we will get our poorer students to work really hard and get good grades in engineering and pre-med programs. But that in itself says, “America is not an meritocratic country!” All we see is that if the poor are very bright and very hard working and very lucky, they may do as well as the stupid and lazy and unlucky children of the rich do.
I’m quite willing to admit that an American ideal is that people should be able to work hard and get rich. Where I differ from conservatives is that I don’t think that having rich parents should tilt the playing field entirely in your favor. And note: these rich kids who do well despite sliding through college with easy majors and bad grades (think: George Bush the Younger) already had enormous advantages before they got to school. Those advantages helped before they were even born, with better prenatal care. It extended to better nutrition growing up, better schools, better social exposure, you know: better lives.
So the question is, are we as Americans going to continue to accept living in an aristocracy but still hold up the ideal of meritocracy? Because it is more than just unpleasant for the poor; it is wrong. At least in an honest aristocracy, the poor aren’t blamed for not being rich and powerful. Here it is the worst of all worlds. The poor have lives that suck and they are told that it is their own fault. Six out of ten of the wealthiest people in America inherited their wealth. And it is only getting worse. So it is either time to change that or to stop pretending. But we won’t do either. Because the facts and the myth flatter the power elite.