The United States is not a meritocracy

The entire conservative ideological program on economics depends on cosmic justice: the idea that those who develop talent and work hard will succeed as they deserve, while those who are lazy and without skills will fail as they ought. That meritocratic concept is the justification for slashing all forms of assistance to the poor and the middle class from food stamps to healthcare. Further, if the rich got there by just deserts, then they should get even more money to keep being so productive for everyone else.

But if it turns out that there is no meritocracy–if the rich get there through privilege and luck rather than industry and talent–then the entire rest of the conservative agenda morally falls apart.

It just so happens that a new study shows that the United States does not, in fact, have a meritocracy:

America is the land of opportunity, just for some more than others. That’s because, in large part, inequality starts in the crib. Rich parents can afford to spend more time and money on their kids, and that gap has only grown the past few decades. Indeed, economists Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane calculate that, between 1972 and 2006, high-income parents increased their spending on “enrichment activities” for their children by 151 percent in inflation-adjusted terms, compared to 57 percent for low-income parents….

Even poor kids who do everything right don’t do much better than rich kids who do everything wrong. Advantages and disadvantages, in other words, tend to perpetuate themselves. You can see that in the above chart, based on a new paper from Richard Reeves and Isabel Sawhill, presented at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s annual conference, which is underway.

Specifically, rich high school dropouts remain in the top about as much as poor college grads stay stuck in the bottom — 14 versus 16 percent, respectively. Not only that, but these low-income strivers are just as likely to end up in the bottom as these wealthy ne’er-do-wells. Some meritocracy.

What’s going on? Well, it’s all about glass floors and glass ceilings. Rich kids who can go work for the family business — and, in Canada at least, 70 percent of the sons of the top 1 percent do just that — or inherit the family estate don’t need a high school diploma to get ahead. It’s an extreme example of what economists call “opportunity hoarding.” That includes everything from legacy college admissions to unpaid internships that let affluent parents rig the game a little more in their children’s favor.

But even if they didn’t, low-income kids would still have a hard time getting ahead. That’s, in part, because they’re targets for diploma mills that load them up with debt, but not a lot of prospects. And even if they do get a good degree, at least when it comes to black families, they’re more likely to still live in impoverished neighborhoods that keep them disconnected from opportunities.

Everything about the conservative economic agenda is wrong not only on the merits (supply-side economics is a proven logistical failure, for instance), but from its very philosophical underpinnings.

There is no meritocracy. The rich do not get ahead by their industry and talent, but by luck and connections. It’s more about who you know, than what you know. Which means that anyone defending the right of the rich to take even more money is exalting a system as indefensible as the divine right of kings.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.