Reality and the American Dream: Is Meritocracy Defined by Socio-Economic Status?
Based on the idealistic notions of a just nation, the American Dream defines success to the result of one's merit, the product of one's sacrifice, and not directly related to the inequalities of social privilege. Therefore, it is un-American to think that socio-economic status shapes the lives of individuals and that hard work can be overshadowed by external factors. The American Dream argues for the belief in freedom of choice. As a romantic ideal, it provides hope for those who struggle not only with adversity, but with prejudice and exclusion on a daily basis. Its main proposition, that sacrifice will eventually derive in the life one has always aspired to, has proven to be faulty. Although some of these assumptions are partially true, certain important factors such as extreme poverty and racial discrimination tend to be overlooked, even if they create circumstances where the scarcity of opportunities is common.
Before evaluating the truth of the American Dream, however, it is important to note that social class exerts a strong influence in the life of human beings. Socio-economic status may define how individuals think, how they act, the way people behave, the outfits individuals choose to wear, and furthermore, the use of language. Wealth tends to affect how one looks, where one eats, the stores one chooses to shop, the education one receives, and the occupations one may hold throughout life. In addition, it may also affect the person one chooses to love, the friends one has, the quality of one's health, and above all it shapes the perspective individuals have of their own existence (Newman, 2006). It then becomes relevant to question whether if Americans are able to forge their own destiny and to question the true validity of the American Dream.
Social Critics have argued that the meritocratic system of the United States is plagued with obstacles for those who do not belong to privileged groups. Without doubt, this faction is comprised of middle or upper class white males, although women have made significant improvements in the last decades (Newman, 2006). African Americans, Hispanics, and other underprivileged groups are often faced by situations that impede their social advancement, even if these situations have no further justifications beyond stereotypical notions. The denial of home loans, the difference in education quality, and the outrageous and rampant judicial discrimination suffered by the underprivileged 'among other circumstances- are examples that illustrate the pitfall of meritocracy in the United States.
In contrast to the previous argument, one could also remark that individual merit continues to be a crucial factor for social advancement. In 2005, The New York Times conducted a national poll that 'uncovered optimism over financial future, opportunities, and the reward for hard work' (Leonhard and Wershcut). In addition, several surveys have reported that social mobility has been observable during the last 20 years, especially among the middle and lower class strata. With all this stated, this argument will emphasize that the meritocratic nature of the American Dream should be defined as an incomplete truth, as a notion that translates into reality largely for those who enjoy resources that are necessary for social mobility.
The folklore of the United States contains hundreds of stories that portray individuals who have overcome monumental adversities through the magnitude of their own courage, the constancy of their discipline, and the sagacity of their own vision. In the same way, poverty and discrimination have seemed to be insufficient obstacles for the victories that serve as an unequivocal validation of the American dream. Reality, nevertheless, illustrates an array of different stories. In a world where education determines one professional future, it seems as if aspiring young students are not solely dependent on their potential, but also limited by their membership to a certain social class. College enrollment and acceptance, for instance, depends on performance and intellectual aptitude; the former demonstrated through high school grades and the latter demonstrated by the scores of standardized tests. Examinations like the SAT and ACT have shown a startling difference in the results obtained when low and high income testers are compared (Newman, 2006). 'In 2006, with a maximum score of 2400, the average SAT score for students whose families earned less than $10,000 a year was 1113. The average score for students whose families earned more than $100,000 per year, on the other hand, was about 1656,' as reported by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (2006).
As one might expect, attending high school in an affluent neighborhood is strongly correlated with a higher score. The difference can be explained in that private and upper income institutions offer frequent SAT and ACT courses that allow their students to be far better prepared than their middle and lower-class counterparts (Newman, 2006). In some schools students have the opportunity to take practice tests and tutoring programs that greatly enhance student's performance. However, such difference is more pronounced due to prep courses from private companies like Kaplan and the Princeton Review, which offer preparation for often high prices. Those who are therefore able to afford these particular coaches are at a great advantage with respect to those who cannot, something that creates a disparity with respect to college admissions, and acts as a factor for the continuation of social inequality (Smiley, 2008). The Law School admission process is even more prone to be affected by financial power, such thing because the Law School Admissions Test stands as the single most important factor for Law School admission, which implies that access to prep courses like those described above provides a significant advantage for those who can afford their very high prices (Smiley, 2008).
Additional arguments have also been raised against standardized testing. Several scholars have described the readings upon which students are asked to respond as biased and often plagued by subtle allusions to values and assumptions that are related more to white upper-middle class thought than to any other way of thinking (Smiley, 2008). Test takers may therefore find the readings more complex and less understandable if the are unaware of, or do not understand these subtle and inexplicit assumptions. Unsurprisingly, women and minorities have statistically shown lower scores when compared to upper class white males, as stated by statistics gathered by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing in 2006. The latter circumstance, however, proves that once again membership to this faction of society acts as a predictor of higher scores in standardized testing (Smiley, 2008). The scores obtained in these examinations are by all accounts important if one aspires to open the doors of better and more prestigious schools, which provide academic credentials that allow for jobs with a higher salary.
Higher education itself, an ideal vehicle for social mobility, happens to subject to the inequalities of financial stratification. Such inequality, however, has been shown to be more pronounced in highly prestigious colleges, something that according to The Economist is 'increasingly reinforcing rather than reducing educational inequalities.' An article published by the journal in 2005 noted that three quarters of the students at the country's top colleges come from the richest socio economic fourth, compared with just 3% who come from the poorest fourth. The median family income at Ivy League Schools, which hold the key for highly influential positions, is about $ 150,000 (Ever Higher Society, 2005). Pedigree also remains as a significant factor for admission. In most Ivy League Schools institutions 'legacies,' or children of alumni, make up between 10% and 15% of every class. At Harvard, for instance, they are over three times to be admitted than other students (Ever Higher Society, 2005). Such situation acts as another factor for the continuation of the increasing and often inhumane social inequality of the United States. In a world where financial power is imperative for one's voice to be heard, if the underprivileged are denied with the education that leads to influential careers, it then becomes extremely difficult for these groups to be agents of change, and to enjoy upward social mobility.
Despite the adverse circumstances experienced by the under-privileged, social mobility still occurs in the United States. The study 'Class Matters,' conducted in 2005 by the New York Times, explored the movement of families up and down the social ladder. The findings of this research concluded that the financial composition of the United States society has in fact changed during the last 20 years, and that in addition, it has experienced a relatively high advancement for middle and lower middle classes (Leonhardt and Wershcut, 2005). Of the families who belonged to the former class in 1988, about 40 % occupied a better socio-economic position ten years later, while for those who were found in the latter, about 45% showed social advancement to higher strata throughout the same period (Leonhardt and Wershcut, 2005). The study's methodology divided society into five financial segments and located these classes as the second and third fifth respectively (Leonhardt and Wershcut, 2005). For the families that began in the bottom, about 50 % increased its income and therefore socio-economic class, while the other 50% remained in its initial position over the same course of time as described above (Leonhardt and Wershcut, 2005).
It is also important to note, however, that the study also showed social mobility trends that account for increments and detriments of one's salary and socio-economic status. The 4th fifth, or upper middle strata, showed the highest tendency of downward mobility with about 45% of its population descending within the levels of the social pyramid (Leonhardt and Wershcut, 2005). In addition, the findings of the study reported that for the top and bottom fifth, more than half of the families that belonged to either segment in 1988 remained in the same position ten years later (Leonhardt and Wershcut, 2005).
Additional research has been focused on the nature and frequency of social mobility. In 2006, the Center for the Future of Children published the conclusions of a research that followed intergenerational socio-economic differences during the last 20 years. The study found that 'social mobility is high if the opportunity is open,' but relatively low if the barriers associated with a person's background are few' (Beller & Hout 2006, p. 20). These obstacles can be defined as racial discrimination, poverty, or physical disability. A segment of the study focused on comparing occupations between individuals and their parents, with the premise that 'income is closely related to the prestige, nature, and rank of one's work' (Beller & Hout 2006, p. 20). Several occupational shifts between generations were reported to illustrate this matter, with upward mobility occurring when occurring when individuals have a more prestigious and better paying job than that of their mother and father. 'Among men, 37 % were upwardly mobile and 32 % were downwardly mobile.' Among women, on the other hand, '46 % were upwardly mobile, and 28 % felt into lower socio-economic strata,' (Beller & Hout 2006, p. 20). The latter and the former statistics result from a comparison between the jobs of current working individuals and those of their parents between 1988 and 2004 (Beller and Hout, 2006 p. 23).
In the same way, an editorial of the St. Louis Post Dispatch published in January 2008 argues that in 'in America, you can start poor, work hard and end up rich. But winding up rich is becoming more and more and more difficult unless you are born to wealthy parents' (Smith, 2008). Based upon a study by the Treasury Department, in which tax returns from the same groups were followed between 1996 and 2005, the editiorial stated:
It was found that 45 % percent of the people in the poorest group managed to work their way out of it over the decade. Ten percent of them managed to make it to the middle class, and the incomes of 3.6 percent of them were among the highest 20 % of the country. Rags-to-riches still happen in America. But it's notable that more than half the people who started out poor were still poor nine years later. Of those who started in the middle income, about a third stayed there. The rest were split pretty evenly between those who climbed higher and those who slipped down. By contrast, there was a startling difference among those who began well-off, a population that tends to stay that way. More than 85 % of those who started out in America's richest quintile were still there a decade later. Economic status at the time of a person's birth still makes a big difference (Smith, 2008).
Despite current trends of social mobility, some sectors of society have shown a much more aristocratic nature. A self perpetuating political elite, for instance, is beginning to control the higher spheres of financial and governmental power, both in the Democrat and Republican parties ('Ever Higher Society,' 2005). As the grandson of a senator, George W. Bush is not only the son of a president, but is also a member of wealthy business elite. John Kerry, on the other hand, married a very wealthy women after receiving his education at a Boston posh private school, and subsequently Yale ('Ever Higher Society,' 2005). There, and just like the Bushes, Kerry belonged to the ultra-select Skull and Bones society. Al Gore is a Harvard graduate whose father was a senator, while John McCain's grandfather and father were the first pair of father/son Four-Star admirals in the United States Navy ('Ever Higher Society,' 2005). Historically, Barack Obama is one of the first serious candidates without blue-blood pedigree, who is also a member of an ethnic minority.
In addition, the self perpetuating political elite of the United States has found limited questionings. An article published in The Economist argues that if such a thing were to happen in England, if all the prime ministers were to come 'from Ethan and Harrow, Britain would be in high Dungeon.' According to the journal, there is an increasing tendency for elites to self perpetuate (2005). 'America is increasingly looking like imperial Britain, with dynastic ties proliferating, social circles interlocking, mechanisms of social exclusion strengthening, and a gap widening between those make decisions, shape culture, and the vast majority of those who work ordinary shifts from nine to five ('Ever Higher Society,' 2005).
The advocates of the American Dream are usually found among those with opportunities for social growth. In conjunction with their financial strata, the intense competition they endure has led them to believe that their nation is nothing else than merit. A previously mentioned article, which was published in The Economist, depicts the lives of those at the top of the social pyramid:
As children, they are ferried from piano lessons to ballet lessons to early reading classes.
As adolescents, they cram in as much after-school coaching as possible. As students, they
compete in agony to get into the best graduate schools. As young professionals, they burn
the midnight oil for their employers. And, as parents, they also agonise about getting their
children into the best universities. It is hard for such people to imagine that America is
anything but a meritocracy: their lives are a perpetual competition. Yet it is a competition
among people very much like themselves'the offspring of a tiny slither of society'
rather than among the full range of talents that the country has to offer.
The U.S. society wants to believe it provides its residents with a system where those who succeed to so as a result of their own merit. Surprisingly enough, there is still some validity for such notion. The United States provides opportunities for social advancement rarely found in other nations, as the preceding paragraphs have demonstrated. In addition, hard work continues to be rewarded by a society that has gradually opened its doors for minorities throughout the last decades, even if their salaries are not completely equal when compared to those of whites. The stories of those who overcome adversity and achieve the American Dream are still present. However, the factual truth of this romantic ideal does not conform to its initial and idyllic notion. Today individuals merit is not the only deciding factor for success, and, at times, it seems to be overshadowed by other instances. As a result, it can be argued that meritocracy and the American dream are still present, but defined by reality as a partial fact, as an idea that provides hope while being based on an incomplete truth. In the same way, it can be concluded that meritocratic advancement is still occurring. Unfortunately, it is usually enjoyed by those who have access to the material assets and cultural capital deemed necessary to social mobility. These groups are in most cases, middle and upper class social classes.
Lani Guiner is a current full time Law Professor at Harvard University, where in 1998 she became the first black women to be tenured at the School of Law (Parrish 2006, p. 24). Her research has focused on the nature of Meritocracy, which a special attention in evaluating the validity of its most central assumptions. In her own words, the findings of her work are as follows: 'although the system we call meritocracy is presumed to be more democratic and egalitarian than aristocracy, it is in fact reproducing what it was intending to dislodge,' (Parrish 2006, p. 24). The American Dream has betrayed its own nature, but furthermore, it has allowed for the perpetuation of social inequality through the prevalence of a defective and faulty seduction. The question remains, will this seduction prove to be beneficial for the future of the United States? For the coming years of a nation that claims to be the ultimate advocate of liberty and democracy?
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