The United States has been known as the “land of opportunity” for quite sometime; with thousands of people migrating here annually in hopes of bettering the lives of themselves and their family. As more and more minorities continue to find themselves trapped in America’s lower class, they start to question if their dreams were impractical after all. While the majority of people, who belief in the alleged “American myth”, would argue that the poor are ultimately poor due to their lack of ability and hard work, this paper shall attempt to show that poverty is in fact an ongoing structural problem that needs to be addressed. Evidence provided shall prove that there are many obstacles that hinder, without completely preventing, lower-class individuals from reaching the upper realms of today’s society. Hence, America is not a pure meritocracy due to different family backgrounds, flawed school systems, futile standardized tests, and discriminatory labor forces.
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Before showing how America is not a pure meritocratic society, we must define what meritocracy means. A meritocratic society offers all its citizens equal life chances. Citizens compete on an equal playing field for their positions and responsibilities in society. People are strictly rewarded for their abilities and competence demonstrated by past actions or by fair competition. Thus, those who demonstrate great ability and effort are compensated more than those who are considered less talented and hardworking.
The first and most obvious reason America is not a true meritocracy is the extreme difference in social classes that people are born into. Unfortunately people cannot determine the social class of their parents, so they must live with the “hand they are dealt”, and naturally, upper-class presents more opportunities and advantages in life than lower-class, due to higher family incomes and wealth. From the very beginning, Americans do not actually compete on a so-called equal “playing field”. The authors of “Inequality by Design: Cracking the Bell Curve Myth” proved that one’s life chances are greatly affected by their parents’ socioeconomic status at least as much, if not more than their own natural intelligence. By altering Herstein and Murray’s famous “bell curve”, they revealed that poverty is equally induced by poor economic conditions and low intelligence.
Social class has an effect on all components of a person’s life, from the type of health care someone receives to their education attainment. People from the lower-classes on average receive worse medical care and education than people of the higher-classes thus placing them at a large disadvantage early on in life. The Census Bureau estimates that there are currently 45.7 million uninsured people nationwide. That being said, most of the uninsured are lower-class whites, minorities and children. While emergency rooms in the United States are required to attend to anyone who walks through the door, services for the uninsured are usually slower and less than par. Health care bills can also be thousands of dollars forcing poor families into further destitution. In addition to bad health care, low-class people receive poorer quality education. Daniel Rossides asserts that a child’s class origin is strongly and directly related to all forms of academic achievement. He continues to say that one’s social class affects all aspects of education, such as regularity of attendance, regular promotion in grade, participation in clubs etc. Lower-class children are more likely to miss school often and fail classes because of illness, lack of financial resources and motivation from absent full-time working parents. Overall, one’s social background plays a large role in one’s life opportunities and successes, and the United States will never be a pure meritocracy until social backgrounds no longer advantage some and disadvantage others.
While evaluation systems, such as formal education are closely linked to meritocracy, America’s school systems actually hinder pure meritocracy. It is a well known fact that America’s school systems are not completely equal due to extremely unequal funding. Schools are funded by local land taxes, thus ones that are located in wealthy white neighborhoods have higher per pupil expenditures than schools located in lower-class communities. Higher per pupil expenditures mean better books, computers, supplies, resources, and education. Wealthy communities attract the better teachers as well because many of them do not want to teach the “rowdy” students typical of a poor minority community. Even in an imaginary world where all schools were equally funded, lower-class children would still be disadvantaged by unequal treatment and lower expectations from administration. MacLeod cites Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital to explain the poor achievement of working class children. He asserts that the cultural capital of the lower-classes-their manners, norms, dress, style of interaction, and linguistic facility is devalued by the school, while the cultural capital of the upper-class is rewarded. He goes on the say that class-based differences in speech patterns affect academic achievement and place working-class students at an additional disadvantage. While most faculties try to educate and treat all students equally, subconsciously they probably do favor upper-class students. Many teachers and counselors will automatically place someone from the lower-class to be on a technical track, thus those students are denied equal educational opportunities and the chance to obtain lucrative jobs. The lower-class students’ linguistics and demeanor can hinder them from fully communicating and connecting with their middle-class teachers as well. To avoid conflict, many teachers simply pass lower-class students on to the next grade level, which really hurts them in the long run. Again, lower-class people are disadvantaged by the flawed school systems continuously not providing sufficient resources for them or challenging them enough.
The SAT was first created to provide universities with a standard tool to judge all high school seniors across America equally. While many of today’s universities still use the SAT for admission decisions, some are starting to disregard it because they view it as no longer a true indicator of someone’s intelligence and abilities. The SAT no longer fosters a pure meritocracy because many of the upper-class students are at an unfair advantage simply because they are able to take an expensive SAT prep course. While the upper-class students may not be any smarter than other less privileged applicants, they do better on the SAT because of hours of tedious sessions consisting of learning and practicing all the test “tricks” with an experienced tutor, thus getting accepted into the most prestigious schools and receiving the best jobs. Katzman even admits that their services were not going to raise someone’s skills set or make them perform better in college, so students were merely taught how to approach the problems on the test a certain way to ensure positive results. Therefore, it is no longer an accurate sign of someone’s intelligence because more and more people are just learning how to beat the SAT system. Ultimately the SAT is not based on merit because it does not test a person’s inherent abilities and all students are not equally prepared for it, thus it hinders meritocracy as well.
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Lastly, discrimination in the labor force denies some groups of people adequate job opportunities and wages. Still to this day, African Americans experience higher unemployment rates and earn a large proportion less compared to White men in this country due to persistent discrimination. Samuel Cohn showed that the black male unemployment rate has consistently been higher than their white counterparts since midcentury. This employment disparity can be explained by many different discriminatory factors. While it may not be intentional discrimination, many businesses are choosing to move out of inner-cities where most poor minorities reside and locate in more urban areas. These relocations make it a lot more difficult for blacks to hear about and reach potential job openings. In addition to subtle discrimination, some employers simply refuse to employ African Americans. They may view them as lazy and ignorant, thus forcing blacks to accept whatever job they can get. Even when blacks are offered positions, they only earn 77 cents to every dollar their white colleagues make. This large income disparity advantages the whites who enjoy higher wages, while making it harder for blacks to break out of poverty.
Like many problems in today’s society, America’s lack of true meritocracy can be fixed by implementing a few simple social programs. Through income support and free access to education and health care, the lower-class would be placed on a more equal “playing field” with the rest of society. Programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit, job training, and education reform not only reward the lower-class for their hard work, but provide them with more resources and opportunities in life. These programs could virtually end poverty because the poor would finally have the necessary tools to compete in school and the job market. In addition to these welfare programs, school administrators and employers need to be more aware of how hidden discrimination affects their expectations and hiring practices of the lower-class. Overall, I hope this paper showed that the pursuit of a pure meritocracy is still much needed to ensure all Americans have the same opportunities to earn a decent living for themselves and their loved ones.
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