Travis Scott Lowe is a faculty fellow at the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities and Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tulsa. In this essay, Lowe discusses the myth of equal opportunity and the concept of freedom in America. Lowe concludes with a proposal for ensuring, as best we can, equal rights for our nation’s children.
One of the most pernicious myths in American society is that everyone has access to equal opportunity. Even the poorest of us, the conventional wisdom goes, can transcend their circumstances and raise themselves to prosperity with talent and hard work. We find it difficult to resist the Siren song of this myth, largely because it gives us the illusion of freedom and control. Many examples of such rags-to-riches stories are readily available in our popular media. We may know someone who achieved this feat, or perhaps we have even accomplished it ourselves. The problem is that despite their ubiquity, such stories are outliers. When we look at the overall patterns, the typical experience for most folks is that they end up staying in the social class in which they were born, even those with an incredible work ethic.
This makes a lot of sense when we think about how opportunity really works. It is obvious that children born into wealthy families have more opportunity than children born into poverty. Consider what would need to happen to have truly equal opportunity. We would have to prevent parents from helping out their kids. This would mean no private schools, no working at the family business, no networking, and no guidance. It would require that each child be given the same resources as everyone else and nothing more. Only under these conditions would true equal opportunity be possible, let alone probable. Of course, this is not what people envision when they say they want equal opportunity because they would see it as an infringement on their freedom to raise their children as they see fit.
In reality, most folks just want a fair shake, a chance to work with dignity and earn a decent living. They crave the freedom to pursue their dreams and, if they have children, to help them pursue theirs. To that end, we should abandon the myth of equal opportunity entirely. Its only purpose is to paper over the social and economic arrangements that hold people back and reinforce the lie that the inability to escape poverty is an individual moral failing. In other words, it only functions as a mirage that works to maintain the status quo for the elites who benefit from it.
Instead, I propose implementing a minimum standard of opportunity, or the basic level of resources and circumstances that are necessary for children to live, learn, and grow into thriving adults. Achieving such a minimum standard of opportunity would require that every child receive the following, year-round and free of cost to their families:
- A rewarding educational experience, including the possibility for extracurricular activities
- Nutritious meals
- Easily accessible health care
- Safe housing
- Durable and comfortable clothing
While we can debate the merits and drawbacks of providing such things for adults, we cannot afford to do so for children. I have chosen children as the beneficiary of this concept for two major reasons. The first is that children grow up to be adults. If we want adults to thrive, we need to ensure that their childhood allows for that possibility. The second reason is that children have no control over their families’ financial circumstances. They do not get to decide where to live, if they have food that day, or if they can go to the doctor’s office when they feel sick. They are among society’s most vulnerable populations, and as such, should not be subjected to the cruel vagaries of market logic.
One might ask, “This sounds expensive. People are free to provide these things on their own. Why is it our responsibility to do it?” My rejoinder to this is to ask, “What is freedom without opportunity?” Is having a shorter lifespan because you are poor the kind of freedom we want? What about not ever having a chance to save enough to retire? Or foregoing a doctor’s visit because you are afraid it will financially ruin you? The freedom that people in these situations experience is an empty freedom, a routine that is devoid of real agency.
More than that, it is an oppressive freedom, for we are all being gaslit into believing that we have all the resources we need to change our circumstances while simultaneously being robbed of them. Elites place their hands on the levers of power and move them dispassionately, seeking growth and profit above all else. For ordinary people, livelihoods vanish, and our country offers scant help in picking up the pieces. Despite living in one of the wealthiest nations in human history, millions of Americans experience this profound disempowerment. What is the value of such freedom to them? Why should they ignore their thirst for opportunity when freedom has turned to ashes in their mouths?