Equal Opportunity?

By Lloyd Graff

I have been thinking a lot about whether America has become hopelessly stratified by wealth, race, education and all sorts of barriers that make it almost impossible for poor people to improve their status.

I have the opportunity to observe a lot of the edges of our cultural, educational and economic divide as a small business owner, grandparent, and resident of a racially mixed community.

Running a small business that does deals with both successful and struggling companies, I see how the unfolding of the post World War II industrial revolution has moved American jobs and ingenuity all over the world. First, we had Japan challenging, then China, and then the rise of Mexico to reduce the torrent of jobs going to the Far East. Automation is now reaching a new critical mass which will eliminate more low and middle level jobs. Amazon and its offshoots will continue to drain retail jobs. Drones will eventually wipe out tons of UPS and FedEx employees.

Yet there are thousands of unfilled factory jobs that evidently still do not pay enough to attract young people today. That is the real rub in my machinist world. You can offer $30 per hour for a skilled machinist, repair person or programmer and you still cannot hire her or him.

Education has failed us in America, but maybe that is an incorrect cliché. Maybe Americans have failed the education system.

I think there are all kinds of interesting opportunities available in manufacturing and a hundred other jobs in our diverse and rich economy in America, but ambition, hope, courage, a roadmap, and maybe most important, self-belief, are lacking.

I heard a really disturbing and shocking figure. Today, 60% of new births in the U.S. are to unmarried mothers. Every related statistic points to a poorer life outcome for those kids. The children of married, two-parent families have far more opportunities. And that 60% figure keeps growing while the economic gap between one parent children versus unmarried two parent homes also gets wider.

I look at my older grandchildren and see them get a demanding Silicon Valley education with the structure of daily religious education as well as supplemental athletic and dance training. Should I tell my children not to push their kids to excel because poor, unwed parents make bad decisions? Of course not.

Not coincidentally, there are virtually no African American people in their Bay Area neighborhood or school.

Where my wife and I live, our next-door neighbors are black and the schools are more black than white. My wife’s educational therapy practice has more blacks than whites. Real estate values are less than half of similar housing stock in nearby suburbs. Growth in home values has been the most important vehicle for building wealth in America and most black people have been shut out. This has contributed to poorer quality schools in black neighborhoods, also contributing to the expanding wealth and opportunity gap between rich and poor, black and white.

There is little doubt in my mind that we are headed in a bad direction. David Brooks just wrote an excellent column in The New York Times entitled “How We are Ruining America”, which began with this lead.

“Over the past generation members of the college educated class have become amazingly good at making sure their children retain their privileged status. They have also become devastatingly good at making sure the children of other classes have limited chances to join their ranks.”

I know of no good parents who are going to stop doing everything possible to enhance their kids’ chances for success.

Government programs have generally been awful failures, except maybe Head Start and Pell Grants, at changing people’s self-limiting and self-destructive behavior. Throwing money at prevention of opioid addiction certainly has not worked. Planned Parenthood and abortion availability hasn’t dented unmarried parenthood.

Should I feel badly if my children and grandchildren are in the more fortunate category? Perhaps, because my America has been so good to me. But, what do you do if so many people in this country cannot, will not, or believe they are so hopelessly stuck, that they and their kids will never get out of the mire?

Question: If you were a poor kid today, what would you do to succeed?

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23 thoughts on “Equal Opportunity?

  1. Avatarallen

    You’re kind of all over the place this morning so I’ll just hit the high points.

    America isn’t “hopelessly stratified” although various efforts to help the poor have, unsurprisingly, ended up harming them.

    On balance though America’s poor are almost comically well off. After all, their biggest health problem is obesity and on a historical basis having too much food isn’t a sign of poverty.

    Education, specifically the public education system, has failed us but that shouldn’t be a surprise. Public education is public, i.e. government education and, unlike the private sector where there’s always someone gunning for you, many government jobs carry no such worries. Education’s particularly bad in that regard.

    Most people haven’t thought about it, and most parents would rather not, but within the public education system teaching skill’s irrelevant. Teachers don’t get paid well for doing their jobs well. Neither do they get paid poorly, or fired, for doing their jobs poorly.

    It’s not that education’s failed America and it’s certainly not that America’s failed education. The 400% increase in inflation-adjusted funding over the last four decades demonstrates very sincerely that America puts great emphasis on education.

    If anything’s failed is our unwillingness to come to terms with the fact you can’t hire someone under the assumption that they’re going to do a good job, not bother to check how their doing, and be too surprised to find out they’re doing a lousy job.

    By the way, one of the most important selling points of the public education system is that “the children of other classes have limited chances to join their ranks”. What other reason would rich parents have to participate in the public education system but that they knew their money was buying their kids a better chance in life?

    Head Start’s a failure. No one’s ever shown long-lasting benefits from the program in the real world. Not sure about Pell grants.

    In answer to your final question, acquire skills. Learn readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmatic. Read some history.

    Get a Raspberry Pi and learn Python. Write some code.

    Figure out where your inclinations lead to get some advantage from those inclination.

    Develop a thick, or at least thicker, skin.

    Embrace mistakes because you’re going to get familiar with them.

    Question your assumptions, especially those that are thrilling or gratifying or are justifications for stupid decisions.

    There’s lots more in that vein but but if you’re a poor kid today, or any kid, listening generally isn’t one of your skills.

    1. Avatarsteve

      you nailed it!. Lloyd’s wife’s educational “therapy” practice, might be getting paid by the educational system to help some “less” fortunate schools? Yet, for many years now, we’ve paid professionals to “assist” school systems. Today… Same results. more money needed. Or, it’s not there fault? etc.
      Allen, i appreciate your comments.!

      1. Risa GraffRisa Graff

        Steve, I’m paid directly by my students’ families, not by their schools. Part of my work as an educational therapist is helping families get the best education possible from their schools, especially for those students who qualify for special education under IDEA. My fees are on a sliding scale based on each family’s ability to pay. But you’re right that there are many schools who need an “assist” from somewhere.

      2. Avatarallen

        Whoa there hoss. It’s the public education system with which I take exception. Secondarily the people who draw a paycheck from the public education system. Mrs. Graff doesn’t appear to be one of the latter and she’s certainly not the former.

        In a nutshell we made a lousy deal a century and a half ago. We turned education over to the political sphere. That kind of sort of worked out for quite a while but if you know where to look you see the problems emerging a long time ago. Most of those problems revolve around the inevitably political nature of the the public education system.

        But things really started going downhill, counterintuitively, when money started flooding into the system. That happened with the orbiting of Sputnik and the fears that resulted.

        The public education system responded to public fears by making a very believable case for greater funding and if it was one thing we had plenty of following World War II, by historical standards anyway, it was money.

        Money was relentlessly pumped into the public education system and that money attracted people who were rather more ambitious than the pinch-faced school superintendents that preceded them. Not at all surprisingly those new folks were both more capable at wringing more funding from the legislatures/tax-payers and more strongly incentivized to do so.

        Here we are sixty or so years on and inflation adjusted funding is up over 400%. Are we any better off for all the money? Not many people would say so.

        But blaming the people who’ve benefited from this situation would be wrong and misleading.

        Teacher’s unions, for instance, benefit from and protect the current system but that’s understandable. What’s less understandable is that those teacher’s unions are creatures of the public education system. Without it they wouldn’t exist. Railing at teachers union is like treating the symptoms of a disease instead of the cause.

        Humblingly however, the American people diagnosed the disease several decades ago and started to apply the cure. That cure’s parental choice and there’s hardly a state in the union wherein some form or other of parental choice can’t be found in the law.

        That’s some pretty serious change and it’s wildly under-appreciated. Not for too terribly much longer though I think.

  2. Lloyd GraffLloyd Graff

    Allen, the blog was a bit “all over” because the causes of people falling further behind Are so diverse. A lousy educational system compared with Scandinavia for instance. The fragmentation of families is endemic where marriage is considered “yesterday” seemingly by so many people. The decline of the old industrial economy that had pretty good jobs for primarily men. The long term denial by race of good housing that becomes a store of wealth and to some degree fosters higher quality schools. Not a happy picture in my eyes for a lot of people.

    1. Avatarsteve

      I”m naive, but why does race have anything to do with home ownership? My parents started with little to nothing? no college. they just were motivated and disciplined to start careers. After years of showing up on time, and positive contribution to their teams, they eventually moved up the “ladder”. Anyone can do that.

      1. AvatarJosh

        Because for decades black people were literally sectioned off into ghettos of lower home values and not legally allowed to purchase homes in higher value areas. As a consequence, generational wealth was built through real estate by white families while generational poverty was continued in black families due to depressed home values. The values were depressed for no other reason than the skin color of their residents.

      2. Avatarsteve

        Atlanta sure is doing well. those home values rock.! the people rock! its a great place. HOme values go up, as long as you “improve” the property and your neighborhood!

    2. Avatarallen

      Except that people aren’t falling farther behind.

      Advancing technology makes those with marketable skills more valuable than previously.

      A doctor of today can deal with diseases/conditions that a doctor of a decade or two ago wouldn’t have bothered exerting any effort to deal with. So today’s doctor is more valuable than yesteryear’s doctor. Same for all skills. Technology’s made them more valuable. An engineer can, singlehandedly, go from concept to prototype without the need for a prototype shop in many cases thanks to advancing technology. That makes the engineer more valuable than his predecessor.

      But if you’ve got little in the way of marketable skills your value hasn’t increased greatly.

      So it’s not that some people are falling behind but that others are racing ahead. And that’s not a “tomato/tomahto” distinction. That’s why the leading health problem among the poor is obesity and why cell phones, even smart phones, are practically a cliché among very poor people.

      On the subject of education, it’s Finland that’s the poster boy for a good public education system. Not much to see there though. Finland’s a tiny country that’s culturally homogenous. But proponents of America’s public education system are frantic for examples of the success of public education so they have to take what they get.

      But the concept of public education is idiotic.

      Yes, you can find good public schools and yes it’s possible to turn lousy public schools into good public schools. But that’s not the way the smart money bets.

      Public education employees have no incentive, other than pride, to do a good job. That means principals don’t have to concern themselves with lousy teachers, district superintendents don’t have concern themselves with lousy principals and school boards don’t have to concern themselves with lousy superintendents.

      The last is because school board elections only hinge, in the exception, on the educational quality of the district.

      America’s grown weary of the excuses for lousy performance especially in view of the endless demands for funding increases. That weariness is visible in the fact that forty-four states have charter schools which are a direct repudiation of the district-model. Finland demonstrates that a good public education system’s possible. It doesn’t demonstrate that a good public education system is a likelihood.

      The decline of the old, industrial economy was inevitable just as the old agricultural economy “declined”. It didn’t. It just didn’t need as many people to get a lot more done.

      The “long term denial by race of good housing” isn’t quite as simple as the morality play that requires noble white folks to redress would have one believe. There were black lawyers and doctors – people with valuable skills – that lived in mansions albeit within the confines set by racism. Within those confines they formed their own stratum to guard what they valued.

      But that was decades ago and those confines are now historical artifacts. If you’ve got the money there aren’t many places that put a higher value on the color of your skin than they do on the color of your money.

      I’m going to saw off now because I’m over five hundred words and I still haven’t had breakfast.

  3. AvatarBryan


    I’ve agreed that the educational system has been failing the American people for decades. When I graduated in the 80’s all my guidance counselors talked about was going to college and getting a 4 year degree. They talked me into something I was not prepared for. After a semester I realized it wasn’t time for me to be in college. I started my working career on the manufacturing floor of an injection molding company. They offered a test for an apprenticeship in the machine shop and I killed it due to my math and science background in high school. Once I became bored with working with my back and shedding blood on the steel, I went to college to get a degree in Mechanical Engineering. I’ve used that for a couple of decades and now realize I enjoy management (not the type my first boss practiced) and am now in the middle of an MBA program. I got where I needed to go, but pushing me there before I was ready was not the thing to do.

    Now I feel the education system is pushing kids to be programmers (see Allen’s comment). Until an app can set up and run a Bridgeport, then there is money to be made in the machining trade. If education would focus on what someone is good at and recommend a career path that doesn’t end in hundreds of thousands of dollars in student debt and push them in that direction, I think the system would be better off. I’d also like to see some type of free education system. I’m not saying every student gets to go to college and smoke weed while earning a 2.0, but I’d be willing to help fund a student that scores above a 3.0. Maybe even 10% paid for every tenth over 3.0. But I’m not a politician and don’t know which person to hold my hand out to…

  4. AvatarMarc Klecka

    I’ve always liked the quote, “Isn’t it amazing how lucky hard working people are?” Define poor. The answer to your question is hard work. Nothing is easy. Never assume that those that have, did not start out as “poor”. America is and always has been a land of opportunity. Seek and ye shall find.

  5. AvatarMark

    The US educational system is ranked embarrassingly low on the world stage while the costs for education in this country are the highest in the world. What manufacturer or used machinery sales company would be able to succeed with such a record.

  6. AvatarBetty

    If I was a poor kid today I would do what Americans have always done, get the highest level of education you can afford, find the best job you can find, find a life partner you love and trust, have children (if you want children) and do the best you can for them so they can have a better life than you had. That is the American story in a nutshell.

    Where things fall apart for people is when you don’t try hard in school and have no family support, have children you have to raise yourself, rely on public assistance because that will never be enough to propel you to the next level, etc.

    I see it in our place of work where a young man has a baby with a woman and they are not married. Neither family is supportive of them and they are bouncing from one living arrangement to another. He is making a good wage for a lower skill level but has missed time due to family emergencies and has not been able to take advantage of overtime. My heart goes out to him and his situation but it is hard to predict how well they will do given their rocky start or if they will make it together. Their situation is more common than the American story I first mentioned and there are many reasons for it, not entirely the fault of the education system, employment opportunities, fewer families following structured religions, but some combination of these things.

    Lloyd, like you, I support my children and grandchildren in every way that I can and I also try to give back to my community so that it can be strong for those that don’t have family support.

    We live in challenging times but I believe it has always been that way, better in some ways and worse in others.

  7. AvatarBob Ducanis

    In my opinion, except for those individuals that have been blessed with extraordinary talent or foresight, I believe the chances to get ahead in this day & age are limited. The days of hard work alone (hard labor) have been superseded by smart work. Unfortunately many of those employed doing smart work, will probably be supplanted by artificial intelligence. We are headed into uncharted waters where human beings may not be essential for basic work. In the past, we were also in uncharted waters, but back then progress and innovation led to new job opportunities. I’m not so sure that enough good job opportunities will be there in the future to support a growing worldwide population. That leaves a whole lot of people in the unenviable position of being obsolete. (think back to the Twilight Zone episode about the Obsolete Man).

    By the way, I read yesterday that in brick & mortar retail sales, it takes 3.4 employees to produce $1M in revenue. At Amazon, that number has been slashed to .9 employees per $1M in revenue.

    I believe in the scientific theory that all dynamic conditions will trend towards equilibrium. Short of trade barriers, tariffs, and walls, most likely the worldwide average wage will be in equilibrium at $1.59/hour.

    I know…….I sound depressing…….

  8. AvatarWarthog

    Public education worked just fine when it was locally controlled. When control went from the local school board (i.e. the board that ran the school in the local area…not multiple schools). As control moved first to “local school boards” that ran multiple schools, to county-wide boards, to state control to federal funding (and partial control), things just got worse and worse. The real disaster was total federal control under the guise of “desegregation”, with students transported long distances to fill racial quotas (a politically correct “feel-good” that didn’t really solve any problems, and in fact made them worse.

  9. AvatarHoward Record

    I can speak from personal experience when I say the American dream is still alive. I am the youngest of five and I was born in south Florida in 1971, my dad was a plant manager for a 100 person machine shop but we lived paycheck to paycheck. My mom didn’t work outside the home so what dad made is all we had. After dad suffered from a massive heat attack and was given a short time to live if he continued the stress, my parents moved us from the city to the woods in central Florida in 1979. We lived in two small campers for three years with no electricity. Dad worked as a machinist in two shops one on day’s and one at night but we still had nothing. My three brothers all quit school at the age of 16 and went to work in a machine shop. As the youngest I was able to see what I didn’t want to live like so I graduated high school before I went to work into a machine shop. By the age of thirty five I had build a small five man machine shop of my own and sold it to go to work for a larger company. I then had some cash and started to attend the local community college then moved to Texas and graduated from LeTourneau University with a engineering degree all by the age of thirty nine. I graduated with no school debt and with my background in machining I began working as an engineer making 100k a year. The problem most people have (including my parents) is how we spend our money. I don’t smoke don’t drink alcohol because of the cost. I have had a motto that if I don’t have to have it to survive or if I can’t make money with it I don’t buy it. I currently work as an engineering manager for a large company along with owning another small shop of my own. My wife of twenty one years has stuck it out with me and now we can live a very good life. I am now enjoying the fruit of being frugal for all of those years and it is nice. Success in life is less money going out than is coming in.

  10. AvatarArt Santana

    You may be all over the place but sometimes you have to in order to get the point across. I am surprised that is only 60% of single parent kids out there. My wife has been teaching low economic kids the last several years and the percentage is closer to 80%. Too many grandparents raising their kids children. Another point is that this is not a black and white issue anymore, it society in general; we all are suffering the same effects. there are way to many useless degrees out there that do not get you anything except a huge student loan debt .
    I still firmly believe that if you try and work hard, the opportunities are there, unfortunately, we have raised our children to have this sense of entitlement that they expect everything to be handed out to them. There is nothing wrong to teaching them to work hard to obtain what is wanted or needed.

  11. AvatarJosh

    “Planned Parenthood and abortion availability hasn’t dented unmarried parenthood.”

    I don’t quite think that’s fair when you take into consideration that vast swaths of this country do NOT have reasonable access to abortion and that many in rural communities don’t even have access to a planned parenthood much less an abortion provider.

  12. AvatarMark Ellenberger

    Better lives start at the Administration of the Local School Board. How involved is the community with their school system. Corruption starts there. Is the school system buying CNC machines to train future machinists or programmers or engineers? Is the school system focusing instead on being socially focused with do nothing feeling sensitive programs that have little to do for making America a world player, fomenting a welfare environment, draining their funds for a Vocational education. Is the school system all about sports to the financial detriment of useful training programs, do school systems need bigger stadiums than the NFL, and will it cost them their Vocational training funds? How many school systems still have Vocational training? My bet is not many. Have states shifted the Vocational training money to the prisons? Has corruption robbed your school system and your kids of opportunity, if it has your probably powerless to stop it. Your only option to save your kids is to move. Catch 22!

  13. AvatarBeth

    It is much harder to pull yourself up by the bootstraps than it used to be. Back in the 70s I worked my way through college. I held anywhere from one to three part time jobs. Granted, often I worked more than forty hours per week and granted, I made slightly over minimum wage at the time. During the years I was at college, my annual gross income ranged between $6K and $8K. Full time tuition and fees for two semesters at a state university was a little over $600–about one tenth of my annual income. Now, with tuition and fees running $14K or higher, in order for a student to make ten times annual tuition, they would have to be able to earn well into six figures. Chances are, their parents aren’t even making that. While I was in college my father made over $20k (working for the government). $600 would have been nothing for him. (In case you are wondering why my parents didn’t pay for my college, I quit college after my first year and when I decided to go back my parents set up a savings account with $1000. When I finished, there was still money in that account.)

    The point is, it used to be financially much easier to get a college degree without wealth than it is now. Students graduating now have huge student loans at usurious interest rates. Many people I know say they expect to take their student loans to the grave with them. These will burden them their entire lives, making it more difficult for them to own homes or educate their own children. The gap will continue to widen, or maybe the whole system will break down completely, until we address the cost of higher education.

  14. AvatarJeremy

    I don’t consider myself old at 39, but I have been through the “dirt poor” and the “doing pretty well” stages of this life. Education is the only way out of poverty at any age, regardless of race, gender, etc.. but it is not easy… “pursuit of happiness” is not a gift. You have to want it, and of course you have to work for it. I think the kid from the single mom had more goverement money and oppurtunities than I did in college. At this point women have more oppurtunies in engineering/manufacturing. Drives me nut when I hear of union workers making way more than I do. College degrees do open doors, but it is tough to set yourslef apart. Highly skilled tradesmen/women type jobs are available, and perhaps easier to get, but still require education and desire. The easy out is to be crazy smart, design a smart phone app/game and stop working at 25…

  15. AvatarBill Badura

    Get a job, even if it doesn’t seem like a good one. Show up everyday and be someone that fixes problems instead of causing them. Never be afraid to leave a job for a better one. Save a much as you can as early as you can. Don’t be discouraged if the amount seems small. Read everything you can about anything of interest. When you want to take a class, start with 1 that will give you immediate benefits. (For me that was public speaking first and then more algebra). If you decide that you want a degree at some point, the time will not have been wasted.
    Take this approach and you will be somewhere in 10 years that you never would have imagined.


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