With the issue of income inequality poised to play a significant role in the 2012 election, let’s talk about the rhetoric that’s flying around. Republicans like to talk about how the policies of Democrats and President Obama would create “equality of outcomes”, while Republicans wish to create “equality of opportunity”. And, in fact, the implication has been from many Republicans, that “equality of opportunity” already exists. Like Mitt Romney, for instance:
“It would be popular for me to stand up and say I’m going to give you government money to pay for your college, but I’m not going to promise that,” he said, to sustained applause from the crowd at a high-tech metals assembly factory here. “Don’t just go to one that has the highest price. Go to one that has a little lower price where you can get a good education. And hopefully you’ll find that. And don’t expect the government to forgive the debt that you take on.”
Does equality of opportunity exist? Well, that’s highly questionable. Look, for instance, at the higher-education situation:
What this data is shows is the percentage of students completing a four-year degree broken down by their test scores in eighth grade and their income levels. What it shows is that low-income (bottom 25%) students with high test scores (top 25%) have basically the same probability of graduating college as high income (top 25%) students with low test scores (bottom 25%).
We’re not strictly dealing with a meritocracy here, are we?
Rhetorically, I completely agree with the notion of “equality of opportunity” as being preferable to “equality of outcomes”. Let’s not delude ourselves, though, into thinking that equality of opportunity exists. It doesn’t. This isn’t the time to cut vital programs (like Pell Grants) that help low-income students climb the ladder. This isn’t the time to continue to squeeze our public schools and subject them to budget games on a yearly basis. This isn’t the time to pull up the ladder and tell everyone at the bottom of the scale, “you’re on your own”.