The American Dream mythology says that if you work hard and play by the rules you can be a success. This mythology ignores the fact that people born into affluent families have a far greater chance of attaining financial success than people born into lower income families precisely because of all the advantages and privileges that come with affluence. Those who rise out of poverty and achieve the American Dream are extremely rare and the exception to the rule.
A new study, “Working Hard, Left Behind,” by the Campaign for College Opportunity, found that over 33% of California families are low income (earning less than $45,397 for a family of four) despite their hard work. The state currently ranks #1 in the nation in the number of working poor families. The solution, the Los Angeles Times argues, is higher education. Since Californians with Bachelor’s degrees earn $1,340,000 more in their lifetimes than those with only high school diplomas, making everyone go to college would necessarily solve the problem, right?
According to the Times, the study found that “higher education is a proven pathway from poverty to prosperity for working Californians.” However, in science we generally require a high level of evidence before we can say we have proof and the evidence simply isn’t there to say that higher education is a “proven pathway to prosperity.” Consider all the unemployed people with higher degrees.
Both the Times, and apparently the researchers at the Campaign for College Opportunity, have confused correlation with causation. Yes, people with college degrees do tend to earn more than those who lack them, but that doesn’t mean that the degree is the cause of their financial success. Affluence increases the chances that a person will do well in grades K-12, increasing the chances of getting into a four-year college and succeeding there, as well. While college achievement does indeed correlate with future financial success, affluence correlates with both academic success and financial success. Thus, it is entirely possible, indeed likely, that familial wealth is the cause of future financial success, in part because it increases the chances of academic success.
The conflation of correlation with causation has led the Times and the Campaign for College Opportunity to some absurd policy prescriptions, like proposal that we increase enrollment of low income adults in colleges, while doing nothing to directly address their poverty. Of course it would be wonderful if the state were to increase funding for its universities and community colleges and provide the financial aid so that every adult in the state could attend college, or even just provide childcare for single mothers, but this would not solve the problem for several obvious reasons. Many low income adults lack the prerequisite skills to succeed in college, including literacy, self-confidence, and study skills. Indeed, many have the equivalent of an elementary school reading level or a long history of academic failure. Many are working full time to support their families and simply lack the time and energy to complete college classes on the side.
Considering that a wealth-based achievement gap exists by the time children are three (and it tends to grow as children move through the education system), it would be a lot more efficient to invest in programs that reduce poverty and material insecurity for families, that encourage parents to read and play with their children, that improve perinatal and children’s health, as well as preschool programs that prepare kids for kindergarten. This would front load the system by increasing the number of people graduating high school with the skills to succeed in college.
However, there is another problem with the Time’s and the Campaign’s reasoning: Even if everyone graduated from college there would continue to be a significant wealth gap. Want and privation are products of wealth and privilege, which in turn are products of an economic system based on exploitation. So long as there is an employing class that pays its employees only a fraction of the value of the goods and services they produce, pocketing the rest as profits, there will continue to be poverty. Likewise, as long as workers accept their dependence on employers, especially without a fight, there will continue to be a downward spiral in wages for everyone, including the college educated. Consider, for example, how much the average middle class, college educated family has lost in personal wealth over the past five years, or the overall decline in living standards that has been occurring since the 1970s for all but the richest Americans.