I was blessed with an incredibly supportive family, in both emotional and financial terms–I was and still am very lucky. Still I faced many obstacles growing up, so I can only imagine the difficulties faced by others. To err is human, particularly for young people without positive role models. Those less fortunate have much less margin for error, meaning one screw-up (of which I had many) can derail their lives.
Both political parties claim they want to promote economic opportunity. Where the parties diverge, and understandably so considering how open the concept is to interpretation, is how to achieve “equality of opportunity”.
To progressive liberals, there can never be enough investment in economic opportunity. The lifecycle approach to human development stipulates that for one to reach their full potential, investments need to be made at every stage of life: nutritional food early in life to support physical and cognitive development, universal pre-K and good public schooling through high school, affordable college options and job (re)training programs into adulthood. All the while, affordable healthcare is needed to guard against the unforeseen and get people back on their feet.
All else equal, I think most people would agree these things are important–they certainly were in my life. Look at any well-to-do family and regardless of their political leanings, you will see parents making these investments to ensure their kids have the best shot at succeeding in life (nepotism aside).
Where many conservatives claim they draw the line is how these programs will be paid for. But it is not only in the name of fiscal responsibility that conservatives balk at such programs. If that was the case, they would not have elected a President whose policies are expected to increase government debt by trillions of dollars over the next decade.
Some conservatives may actually fear more competition, and therefore actively resist policies that promote equality of opportunity. But such people, I think, represent a small minority of conservatives.
Many conservatives I know are good, hard working people. They believe they are promoting the best interests of the poor, and that liberal policies are creating a sort of poverty trap by encouraging laziness and discouraging hard work. All the aforementioned investments in young people are nice to have, so long as people have worked hard and are able to afford them. But how can we demand that something that is outside a child’s control–their parent’s economic situation–determine their access to the tools to success?
My understanding of conservative ideology on economic opportunity, beyond the veneer of fiscal responsibility, has been forming for some time. But it truly crystallized when I read about Dr. Ben Carson’s Secretary of HUD confirmation hearing:
…if confirmed by the Senate, he would enter public service with a background like few other cabinet officials in history, shaped profoundly by a childhood when public assistance meant survival and public housing was all around him.
Rather than embrace the programs that once sustained his family and the families around him, he has resolutely rejected them, adopting standard Republican beliefs that welfare fosters dependency.
The idea that social safety net programs foster dependency can be broken down into two arguments–“I didn’t need it” and “I didn’t get it”.
“I Didn’t Need It”
With a population well over 300 million people, America has people all along the “capacity to overcome hardship” spectrum.
At one extreme there are people who have resigned themselves to a life of antisocial behavior, and no amount of intervention can change that. Liberals have to come to terms with the fact that even well developed, well intended government programs have their limitations. It is also unreasonable to expect the taxpayer to pay for the raft of programs needed to replicate the safety net my family provided me.
At the other extreme there are people like Dr. Carson, who can overcome any obstacle and reach extraordinary heights (often conveniently forgetting the role government programs played in their success). It is, however, unrealistic to expect everyone to have Ben Carson’s intellectual capacity and resilience. Conservatives must place the bar at a realistic level, or else the “equality” in “equality of opportunity” will never become a reality.
The extremes at either end of the spectrum represent a small portion of the population–think normal distribution on a bell curve (see below). The policies that promote equality of opportunity should not be tailored to either of these extremes, but rather towards a hypothetical “reasonable” person–one who wants to succeed, is receptive to and grateful for help, and can progress through life with minimal setbacks (keeping in mind that no one is perfect).
It is also important to understand that inadequate investment is not necessarily money saved. There are costs associated with underinvestment, mainly:
- Lower future earnings. “According to one [UNICEF] study conducted over a 20-year period, disadvantaged children who participated in quality early development programmes as toddlers later went on to make up to 25 per cent more as adults than their peers who did not receive the same support.” This also means less tax revenue and higher spending on welfare programs in the future.
- Higher future spending on our criminal justice system. In other words, higher crime and a less safe country for all Americans. While I am in no way condoning a life of crime in the face of poverty, that does not stop it from being the life some lead.
These negative consequences should factor into how much we, as a country, are willing to invest in promoting equality of opportunity. Isn’t a dollar spent enabling one to realize their potential better than a dollar spent dealing with the negative consequences of systematic underinvestment?
Social immobility in America shows that more work remains to be done. Recognizing that anecdotal stories of rags-to-riches does not mean that we have achieved “equality of opportunity” is a good starting point. After all, accepting there is a problem is the first step towards finding a solution.
“I Didn’t Get It”
This is, in my opinion, a less defensible position. At least those in the “I didn’t need it” camp can claim that further investment is not needed. The “I didn’t get it” camp is just bitter; instead of asking themselves “would this be a good program?”, they are just sour because it didn’t exist for them.
But shaming these people does no good, it only drives them further into their intransigence. Therefore, it is up to progressive politicians to sell programs that promote equality of opportunity as something that benefits everyone, not just direct recipients.
People must be made to understand that proposed policies will help people of all races who have fallen behind in the modern economy. To this end policies and programs that promote opportunity should be race-blind and socioeconomic based, to counter the “us versus them” mentality behind much conservative opposition.
Progressive politicians must also learn to bridge generational divides. One way to do this is to frame adequate investments in today’s youth as a means of paying for the Social Security and Medicare benefits that many upcoming retirees are depending on.
Understanding as an Avenue Towards Progress
It is frustratingly difficult to prioritize between programs that promote opportunity at different stages of life. On one hand it is more politically viable and cost-effective to invest in programs that target young children. On the other hand it takes longer for these investments to pay off, and politics is inherently shortsighted. While investments should probably be skewed towards early-life interventions, they cannot fully substitute for programs targeting older groups (such as affordable college and job retraining).
There are elements of truth in both liberal and conservative ideologies. Hopefully through greater understanding we can stop talking past each other, and start talking to and working with one another. I know this may sound sound like hippy-dippy kumbaya bullshit, but it is really an appeal to pragmatism and foresight. Over the past 8 years hyperpartisanship has led to ineffective governance. As the government failed to respond to people’s needs, people lost faith in the government. This paved the way for a regressive and ineffectual demagogue to take power, which ultimately benefits no one.
I understand that one party–the G.O.P–was a much larger culprit in creating this hyperpartisan environment. As the new minority party the Democrats have to decide whether they will continue driving our government down this dangerous path, or try rise above it. The G.O.P. went low, will the Democrats go high? Do they even want to? I sure hope they do; politics should be a means to an end, not an end in itself.
I leave you with this Franklin Delano Roosevelt quote from a speech delivered in 1932, whose words still ring as true today as the day they were spoken:
The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it; if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach.
This is not to say the Democratic party should be anti-intellectual, or willfully ignore historic experience and scientific consensus. It does not mean it should not stick to its principles and have red-lines. If Trump’s first week in office is any indication, there will be plenty to oppose without being blindly obstructionist. By carefully picking its battles, the Democratic party will have more political capital and public support when there is a core issue it really must fight for.