Mike Kueber's Blog

December 24, 2012

America as a land of opportunity in south Texas

America’s title as a land of opportunity has been challenged in recent years.  The media and politicians continually warn that America’s next generation will probably not have lives as good as their parents.  If this weren’t bad enough for America as a whole to have a shrinking pie, there are also reports that social mobility is declining.  This means that Americans in the lower class are more likely to remain there than are residents of many western European nations.  How can that be? 

Social mobility has been a fundamental American attribute throughout its history and it is commonly believed to flow from its corollary, equal opportunity.  A recent article in the NY Times, however, shows that equal opportunity is not enough.  The article focuses on three young Hispanic women in south Texas who have the opportunity to succeed, but seem unable to pull it off because their support system isn’t strong enough.  This raises a troubling question – how much of a role should the government have in creating a level playing field?  Is it enough for people in the lower class to have the opportunity to move up, or should the government engage in aggressive affirmative action to ensure that lower-class kids can move up?

My use of the term “affirmative action” is prompted by studies reported in the Times article showing that social class, more so than race or ethnicity, is a better predictor of who will struggle academically.  As with many studies, this result is something that most people have intuitively known for many years.  I have seen so many kids without a good support system who head off to college, thinking a college degree is “the great equalizer,” but then either fail to get their degree or don’t know how to take advantage of it when they get it.  Key paragraphs from the article:

  • “Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer — the place where upward mobility gets started,” said Greg J. Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine. “But on virtually every measure we have, the gaps between high- and low-income kids are widening. It’s very disheartening.”
  • The growing role of class in academic success has taken experts by surprise since it follows decades of equal opportunity efforts and counters racial trends, where differences have narrowed. It adds to fears over recent evidence suggesting that low-income Americans have lower chances of upward mobility than counterparts in Canada and Western Europe.
  • In placing their hopes in education, the Galveston teenagers followed a tradition as old as the country itself. But if only the prosperous become educated — and only the educated prosper — the schoolhouse risks becoming just another place where the fortunate preserve their edge.
  • “It’s becoming increasingly unlikely that a low-income student, no matter how intrinsically bright, moves up the socioeconomic ladder,” said Sean Reardon, a sociologist at Stanford. “What we’re talking about is a threat to the American dream.”

The three girls in the article got to know each other through a federal program called Upward Bound.  The objective of the program is to help low-income kids with non-college-educated parents, especially in rural areas, get to college.  Coincidentally, I enrolled in an Upward Bound program at UND when I was in high school, but dropped out after a few days because I got homesick.  (One of my counselors was famed basketball coach Phil Jackson.)  Despite dropping out of the program, I subsequently enrolled at and graduated from UND.  Based on the experience of the three amigas in the Times article, perhaps Upward Bound should focus more on achieving success at college instead of getting to college.

The article concludes with the following lament from one of the protagonists:

  • I could have done some things better, and Emory [University] could have done some things better,” she said. “But I don’t blame either one of us. Everyone knows life is unfair — being low-income puts you at a disadvantage. I just didn’t understand the extent of the obstacles I was going to have to overcome.”

Life’s playing field will never be level.  On average, the kids of successful parents will always have a huge advantage in life over the kids of unsuccessful parents.  But government can, and should, do non-discriminatory things to level the playing field.  The Times article reveals that the cost of college attendance is one of things that created huge challenges for the floundering young women, and that is something government should fix.  Kids should be able to get a degree at a public school without becoming majorly in debt.

That would be a good start toward returning to a land of opportunity.



  1. […] today, I blogged about a NY Times article that reported on the difficulty of some poor kids in south Texas getting […]

    Pingback by More problems in the land of opportunity « Mike Kueber's Blog — December 25, 2012 @ 4:12 am | Reply

  2. getting a college degree, like most things in life, is 99% desire/motivation. if you need and want skills, we can help you. if need motivation, well that comes from inside…


    Comment by q — December 26, 2012 @ 8:53 pm | Reply

    • Yes, but some people, like your kids, are blessed with a support system to helps keep them on track and around obstacles.

      Comment by Mike Kueber — December 27, 2012 @ 8:45 pm | Reply

  3. no doubt about the support system, but how do you institute that short of making college like military boot camp?

    Comment by q — December 28, 2012 @ 3:47 am | Reply

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