Sort by

Just Face It: Equality of Opportunity is a Cruel, Empty Joke in Our Low-Wage Economy

David Callahan
If there is one thing that every smart and practical progressive knows it is that you should never, ever talk about "equality of outcomes" in the United States of America. That sounds too much like we want blue jumpsuits for everyone and a system where no one can climb too high. 
Instead, we're all trained to talk about equality of opportunity: an equal chance for all, a fair shot, a level playing field, and so on. 
We're trained to not sound all that much different from Chamber of Commerce head Tom Donohue, who said in a major speech earlier this week "that what we should really be talking about is equality of opportunity. How do we give everyone a fair shot at the American Dream?”
Now, you could certainly imagine a society where equal opportunity is a sufficient condition for economic justice -- like, say, if everyone who worked hard could attain a decent life and those who worked really hard could do much better. 
But we don't live in that society. We live in an age of low-wage work, where 46 percent of American workers earn less than $25,000 a year and nearly a third of jobs pay under $15,000. And benefits like pensions or a 401(k)? Forget about it for many of those workers. 
In other words, we live in a society with only a limited number of decent jobs to go around. A level playing field can ensure fairer competition for those jobs, and it's not nothing if the kid from the projects has an equal chance to make partner at Cravath. But, inevitably, they'll be lots of  hard working losers in a system with a finite number of good jobs. It's like the Titanic: If there aren't enough life boats, it doesn't matter how equitably seats on the boats are distributed. A bunch of people will still end up underwater. 
And the problem with talking about a "fair shot" for everyone is that it implies that anyone can achieve opportunity if they are properly empowered as individuals to compete: for example, if they have a college degree and no debt. But that's wildly far from being the case right now. Our economy mainly creates lousy jobs, and this will continue to be the case according to the BLS, so while better educating people can definitely improve the economy overall, it may also simply result in more college grads working as home health aides.
Worse, many of these college grads will blame themselves for their lousy job, not the system. As Jennifer Hochschild and others have written, the "American Dream" is actually a conservative ideological framework that falsely posits opportunity for all and wrongly blames individuals for economic failures that are due to structural causes. A big reason it's always been so hard to build a fair society in the New World is that so many of us internalize this ideology, practically from birth. 
Given all this, we may want to set aside the "equal chance" language for a while, with its potential to reinforce the American Dream mythology, and instead stress the need for deep structural reforms.
Or, if we do keep talking about equality of opportunity, we need to make clear that this requires fundamental changes to ensure that a secure life is available for anyone who works hard -- and also security for anyone who can't work. 
Such an kind of agenda wouldn't amount to "equality of outcomes." But it does imagine a much more aggressive effort to stop letting the chips fall where they may.