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Inequalities based on prior inequality

January 18, 2008

Many people think that grossly unequal outcomes across a society with respect to the amount and quality of social goods each enjoys are profoundly unjust. (By social goods I am thinking of things like income, wealth, power, healthcare, and education.) Why should some members of society have such a lower level of access to the things that constitute contemporary life? And if, as people like Amartya Sen maintain, some of these goods are necessary components of full human development, how can it be just that some people are less able to develop their capacities as full human beings (Development as Freedom)? So gross inequalities in the current distribution of social goods are bad enough.

But what if it is also true that a low bundle of social goods in one time period is the largest factor in determining a low bundle in the next time period as well? And what if that is true across generations as well as across stages of individuals’ lives? What if current poverty of a family is itself a primary cause of the next generation’s poverty? Is this not a particularly unacceptable form of inequality?

And yet this cross-generational transmission of poverty and reduced life chances is precisely what we observe. Children born into poverty have less access to crucial resources necessary to their personal and social development. They are exposed to opportunities that are very different from children in other levels of wealth. And, not surprisingly, their probability of winding up as adults in any more affluent segment of the population is markedly lower than that of other children.

So the phrase “the recurring cycle of poverty” is exactly descriptive of the social realities of our society.

What a progressive society promises is that every person will have a reasonable chance of success in life. That means that every person — and every child — should have access to the resources that are necessary for full personal and social development, in order to develop the talents and capabilities that will permit him or her to be creative, productive, inventive, and successful. A democracy based on the equality of all men and women promises exactly this — the idea of unfettered social mobility and real equality of opportunity.

But it is quite evident that American society today falls short of this goal, in large ways and small. The likelihood of graduating from high school if you live in an inner city neighborhood in Chicago, Detroit, or New York is only a fraction of the comparable likelihood in the suburbs; likewise for college attendance and for eventual college graduation. And the likelihood of a high school senior from the lower-quintile of family income is only one-seventh that of a high school senior with the same SAT and high school qualifications from the top quintile of family income — the same qualifications! (This example is taken from William Bowen, Eugene Tobin, and Martin Kurzweil, Equity And Excellence in American Higher Education.) So it seems fairly evident that opportunities are very differentially offered to young people, irrespective of “merit” or qualifications.

So where does this take us? It seems to convey a pretty deep issue about justice in our society: that we have done a very poor job of ensuring that persons from all levels of income and wealth have a decent chance at fulfilling their human talents and achieving their aspirations. And that is a pretty serious thing! And it also puts the spotlight on public education as a crucial component of a just society. If we were to succeed in providing effective K-12 schools to all children, and made it possible for every young person to pursue a university education at a good public university — think of the step forward that this would represent in the basic justice of our society.

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