On unequal access to opportunity

It wasn’t until I was at least 20 that I became aware of the difficulties my parents must have faced when they came here in the 1970s, starting a family across the world from their own, without that support system that is built-in for most families who have been in the United States for generations.  They both arrived here with little more than their degrees in medicine and engineering.  But in anticipation of starting a family, they began saving to buy a house in NJ in an area with a good public school system, very different from where they were living at the time in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood in Brooklyn.  Decades later, when I moved to Park Slope and tried to prove that it was nice and safe [relatively] by pointing to the abundance of baby strollers in the neighborhood, my mother replied, “There were babies in Bed-Stuy, too…crack babies.”  That was not the environment in which my parents wanted to raise a family, so to the safe suburbs of central NJ they went.

Thanks to my parents’ choices, when I started kindergarten I was living in a neighborhood where both my parents left for work before my 8-year old sister walked us both down the street and through the woods to go to school without any adult supervision, and other kids in the neighborhood did the same.  When we moved again, the public elementary school we attended had an advanced math and reading program for “gifted” children, and the public high school had AP classes.

Not everyone has the opportunity to grow up in a non-violent environment and get a decent public education.  People who have made certain choices and can afford a higher cost of living and/or high property taxes, can move to a more affluent area with better schools or to an urban area and send their kids to private schools.  The rest may languish in poor neighborhoods and experience the high statistics of juvenile crime, teen pregnancy and low graduation rates.

As Megan McArdle writes here:

Over the last fifty or sixty years, the amount of tradeable goods that the poor can consume has risen dramatically. And yet their consumption of low-crime neighborhoods, excellent schools, and bug-free, well maintained housing has not necessarily risen; it may well have fallen along at least some of these dimensions.  So it is possible for conservatives to have the feeling that the poor are better off, and for liberals to have the feeling that they are worse off, and for both to, in some sense, be right.

In an ideal world, all parents would make only prudent choices when it comes to saving and would be as interested and involved in their children’s education as mine were.  But even for parents for whom education is paramount, sub-par and sometimes dangerous public schools are the only options if for whatever reason they cannot afford to live in a better neighborhood.  As mentioned in a previous post about class conflict, luck cannot be discounted.  I am luckier than some and not as lucky as others.  I am not as lucky as the guy who was able to use his parents’ connections to find an internship or job right out of college and bypass early career obstacles that I and many other people experienced.  And education cannot solve the problem of parents in the real world who do not care about whether or not their children attend school or do their homework.  However, if education had a positive impact on more people, over time there may be less and less of these parents and more who emphasize the importance of education and making good choices that have a long-term impact on stability, income and even health.  Giving children the same base of quality public education could have a huge impact on socioeconomic status in their future and the futures of their children and grandchildren.

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One thought on “On unequal access to opportunity”

  1. So agree. Access to education so key to transgress class. Was raised in socioeconomically ‘poor’ neighbourhood – although did not know at the time. Teacher education degree pulled me into a new world which I would stress as a teacher in an inner-city school. The challenge is to keep students learning, especially the ones who cannot see education as self-relevant. Thanks for post.

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