Equality is one of the concepts that has become more important as the years have passed in the United States. Generally speaking, it is one of those words that tends to define America in theory, but some argue that equality does not exist in practice. America has long billed itself as the “Land of Opportunity,” a catching marketing phrase that is only occasionally proven correct in the modern age. Poverty is real in America, and it threatens to establish new underclasses of individuals who do not have the true capacity to access the opportunity that America purports to provide. While “equality” and “opportunity” may seem like things available to any person, regardless of economic status, it turns out that disastrous levels of poverty tend to strip from people the chance to truly make it in America.
In the area of education, there are many examples of how poverty keeps children from achieving what they might have achieved if they had been put into different – or better – circumstances. Ginia Bellafante writes of the examples of young children who are not exposed to nearly as many words as the children of rich, affluent professionals. By the time a child reaches elementary school age, the child of the rich parent will have heard millions more words than the child of the poor parent. This would be enough of a problem in itself even without the implications on standardized testing. The educational world has created heavily vocabulary-based tests that determine whether students can attend the best high schools, and more importantly, the best colleges. It does not take a Rhodes Scholar to know that when one group of students is given such a huge developmental advantage, there is no equality of opportunity. The poor children – often raised by parents not able to spend time explaining things to their young children – are put at an instant disadvantage, and this plays out routinely later in life, when the results of children come home to roost.
Likewise, the economic reality of America is largely shaped by pre-determined outcomes. Even dismissing the very real challenges that young people in poverty face in the country’s educational systems, there is the small problem of institutional inequality that is promoted by the realities of capitalism. In the documentary on Park Avenue, Paul Piff outlines some of the realities that the poor face in America. He compares their plight to that of a Monopoly game. All of the properties are already handed out, and the political power has been given out, too. Yet somehow these poor people are expected to sit down at the table and participate in the game just like any other player. In fact, they are chided to do their best, and put in hard work, when in fact, they have very little chance of having long-term success because of the way that resources have already been divided. Capitalism, as a system, rewards those with capital. In order to borrow money, one has to pay interest, and this necessarily provides passive income to those people who already have cash in hand. What this means, then, is that the entire system is built upon the concept that those with money will grow their money. While it is not impossible for a person to come out of poverty to obtain a huge number of resources, the odds are stacked heavily against that person.
The numbers support the proposition that general inequality in the economy has produced a situation that is very difficult on people of color and those at the bottom of the economic spectrum. According to a 2008 article from Dedrick Muhammad, “African-American families in the United States have a median net worth of $20,600, only 14.6 percent of the $140,700 median white net worth. The median net worth for Latino families is $18,600, only 13.2 percent of median white net worth. Between 1983 and 2004, the most recent year for which official federal data are available, median black and Latino wealth inched up from 7 percent to 10 percent of median white wealth. At this rate, we will not achieve wealth equality for 634 years” (Muhammad). Those numbers are startling, and they provide insight into why it is so difficult for those at the bottom to make any legitimate gains.
One must look at these things in conjunction in order to understand the effect that poverty has had on the concept of equality. With the system set up to perpetuate wealth and the system also rewarding those students who are able to grow up in homes with affluent, educated parents, real progress tends to stay just out of reach for young people who have grown up in poverty. While they may technically have the opportunity to do all of the things that their more affluent counterparts can do, they are effectively foreclosed from higher education and other tools that might allow them to gain from an economic perspective. In a system like the one employed in the US, institutional forces help to keep things the way that they are.