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Pursuing Equal Opportunity: Equality in the 21st Century

John Locke, in outlining some of the key philosophies that guided our Founding Fathers in their creation of the American state, claimed that the role of government was to preserve the free, equal, and independent nature of mankind. At the time of writing, the idea of equality of nature and rights, even among Anglo-Saxon males, was unfounded. Unless one found themselves in a particular and privileged subset of the population, equal political or social rights were not a reality. For this reason, creating a nation to secure equal rights was nothing short of revolutionary.

Today, equal right to opportunity is a general principle that is far from revolutionary. Since this nation’s founding, brave citizens have fought to realize the country’s goal of preserving equality by ensuring that the rights stated proudly in the Constitution extend to all. Society now operates under the standard of total equality under the law and the license to pursue personal happiness within the bounds of that law. However, allowing everyone an equal opportunity to pursue happiness does not ensure the equal capability of attaining one’s intentions. We would be committing a grave disservice to our nation’s noble goals if we were to think them achieved. Preserving the equal nature of humankind requires more than allowing citizens the permission to strive for their personal goals but demands that the country’s institutions empower them to achieve those goals.

Many people today find themselves in a crippling and degrading dependence on the government to meet basic needs. This dependence spans generations. While all citizens are free to pursue more prosperous lives than their parents had, they are disproportionately staying in cycles of poverty. Intergenerational mobility has become dangerously idle, and the American dream of progressing past the fate of one’s birth is, for many, reaching a state of folklore. This issue is especially concerning for black Americans as they have far lower rates of upward mobility and higher rates of downward mobility than their white counterparts do. If equal opportunity of advancement stood firm, one would expect to see only 20 percent of the bottom fifth of income earners in the same bracket as their parents, but numbers instead span from 30 percent to 60 percent based on race and gender groupings.

Entrapment in poverty is not solely a financial issue reflected in physical capital levels but also an issue that appears in the form of low social capital levels. Generalized trust is stable over time and can be highly attributed to the origins of culture and context. For this reason, in the United States, past racial injustices hurt current social capital levels, and current racial and income inequalities perpetuate them. For example, inner-city, minority-majority neighborhoods with the highest levels of addiction, incarceration, and teen pregnancies often showcase the lowest levels of social trust. These neighborhoods have extremely low levels of interconnectivity, organizational participation, and civic engagement, and the resulting social trust levels hurt their institutions, education systems, incomes, and opportunities.

Thomas Sowell describes life as a relay race in which “each of us receives a baton at a time and place under which we have no control.” People do not get to choose their parents, hometown, birth order, or culture and therefore do not have equal prerequisites for success. Current generations have no power over the circumstances they are born into and even inherit social capital from past generations.

However, government intervention becomes dangerous and ineffective when it does not properly incentivize factors of success. Policymakers must be cautious not to waste time and resources attempting to remedy deep-rooted cultural and institutional bullet wounds with simple financial Band-Aids. Mere resource allocation provides short-term solutions at the risk of disincentivizing many crucial factors of economic growth. While these policies have their place in providing short-term poverty reduction, simultaneous spending growth and stagnant upward mobility have rendered them unsustainable and unsuccessful in creating lasting independence and prosperity. Without the perfect mix of prerequisites, long-term success becomes nearly unachievable. Many factors are necessary for generational mobility, and failing to meet even one prerequisite to success can have shockwave effects on the prosperity of generations to come.

For this reason, policymakers must create policy that holistically targets factors of success when laying the foundation for wealth promotion, ensuring that they do not build structures meant to last for generations on faulty supports. Solutions such as quality charter school systems, healthy tax incentives, and social capital promoting community programs all act as hopeful examples of policies that help break the chains of generational poverty and promote individual freedom and dignity by reframing incentives and establishing healthy foundations.

I am proud to be a member of a country that is rooted in the promise of equality and opportunity, but in a world that is far from perfect, creating states that provide equality of opportunity takes active and continual work. Possessing the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is remarkably inadequate if citizens do not have the means necessary to pursue those self-evident truths. Without the economic and institutional ability to achieve true freedom, permissibility falls reprehensibly short. If our country is to provide the freedom of opportunity that has set us apart for so long, we have to seek policy that targets the underlying barriers to equality of opportunity that corrupt the promise of freedom for Americans across this country.