Kenworthy: Family background drives equality of opportunity more than race or gender these days

by Ryan Streeter on November 2, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

As gender and race have become less significant barriers to advancement, family background, an obstacle considered more relevant in earlier eras, has reemerged. Today, people who were born worse off tend to have fewer opportunities in life.

This is a central theme in Lane Kenworthy’s new essay in Foreign Affairs, which I highly recommend.

While I don’t share Kenworthy’s confidence in some of the policies he proposes, I think this piece is well worth the read.

He does a good job of showing how the goal of equality of opportunity in America is being upended by the divergent ways we start families and raise children.

Here are two that I think are especially important because they have more to do with culture than anything and admit of no easy policy solution.


Changes in partner selection have also widened the opportunity gap. Not only do those from better-off families tend to end up with more schooling and higher-paying jobs; they are more likely than ever to marry (or cohabit with) others like themselves.

As Charles Murray and others have shown, this also ends up having a geographic component: the upper and lower middle classes are more segregated than a generation ago, so these habits become even more self-reinforcing since it’s less likely that people on either end of the spectrum spend any time with people unlike themselves.


The modern culture of intensive parenting — a largely middle- and upper-class phenomenon — adds to the gap. Low-income parents are not able to spend as much on goods and services aimed at enriching their children, such as music lessons, travel, and summer camp. Low-income parents also tend to read less to their children and provide less help with schoolwork. They are less likely to set and enforce clear rules and routines for their children. And they are less likely to encourage their children to aspire to high achievement in school and at work.

Anyone who’s lived in an upper middle class community knows what he’s talking about. Intensive parenting becomes annoying at times, especially for school teachers and principals, but in the end, the children benefit enormously, while those whose parents are not as involved take their cues more from their peers and whatever popular culture dishes up for them. The results have been disastrous for lower income America, as the upper quarter of America motors along as it always has while everyone else is more or less stuck in neutral.

One final thought: Kenworthy focuses a lot on the problem of inequality. This, it seems to me, is secondary compared to upward mobility. It’s not inequality that discourages people as much as being stuck in the same place and feeling as though you’re not moving up in life. If I work in a factory, I’m going to be bothered much more by earning the same inflation-adjusted wage for ten years much more than my knowledge that somewhere far away, a banker just traded in his Porsche for a Lamborghini. And its not the bankers increasing wealth that is keeping the factory worker’s wages where they are. So the biggest challenge for us is figuring out how to grow incomes and opportunity, not reduce the gap.