Future of Children Policy Brief

Opportunity in America: The Role of Education


Abstract


Stagnating incomes for the middle class together with rising income inequality have raised questions about whether the United States remains the land of opportunity celebrated in the nation's history and public philosophy. This brief reviews the evidence on intergenerational mobility and the role of education in enabling less advantaged children to move up the economic ladder. It concludes that, in many respects, the U.S. education system tends to reinforce rather than compensate for differences in family background. Strengthening opportunity requires greater, and more effective, investments in education, especially for America's youngest children.

Policy Brief

Although the U.S. economy has performed well of late, most of the benefits of growth have gone to the top half of the income distribution, especially the very top. The typical family's income has not grown at all since 2000. Gaps between rich and poor today are larger than they have been at any time over the past half century. The American public's reaction to growing inequality is at least as interesting as the trends themselves. After all, in a democracy one might expect the majority who are not doing well to elect leaders who would fix the problem. But Americans have a deeply held belief in opportunity-the ability of anyone who works hard and plays by the rules to get ahead. They reason that if some of their countrymen are rich and others are poor or just getting by, it must be because of differences in their willingness to work or to take advantage of the many opportunities available in a highly productive U.S. economy.

The American public's reaction to growing inequality is at least as interesting as the trends themselves. After all, in a democracy one might expect the majority who are not doing well to elect leaders who would fix the problem. But Americans have a deeply held belief in opportunity—the ability of anyone who works hard and plays by the rules to get ahead. They reason that if some of their countrymen are rich and others are poor or just getting by, it must be because of differences in their willingness to work or to take advantage of the many opportunities available in a highly productive U.S. economy.

The conviction that America is the land of opportunity may be rooted in the nation's immigrant heritage or in its origins as a frontier society with an abundance of natural resources, unfettered by an established hereditary aristocracy. Whatever the reasons, surveys find that most Americans think they-or at least their children—will one day achieve the American dream. And most feel little resentment toward those who have earned large fortunes.