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Woven deeply into the fabric of the American consciousness is the idea that anyone in America can succeed regardless of what you look like, where you were born, or who your parents are. There are few things that capture the American imagination quite like a good rags-to-riches story.
We like these stories because they reflect positively on our society. When someone from humble beginnings manages to make it in America through sheer hard work and natural aptitude, it’s an opportunity for us to feel validated about upward social mobility within our system.
However, I have noticed that rags-to-riches stories are also sometimes invoked in an effort to make invalid the real, structural barriers to success that those who are disadvantaged in our society face every day. If a person can go from poverty to prosperity in this land of equal opportunity, the argument goes, then poor people can only blame themselves for not working hard enough.
It troubles me deeply whenever individual success stories are employed to mask structural limitations on opportunity in our society. While it is true that there are many Americans who have succeeded through individual initiative despite starting life with numerous disadvantages, these success stories cannot justify the structural inequalities that exist in this country. The fact of the matter is, for every individual who rises out of poverty, there are many more who remain in poverty because their options in life have been structurally limited.
In the United States, if a child is born black, Latino, or to a family of low socioeconomic status, it is more likely that that child will receive an inferior education, receive lower quality health care, and be treated more harshly in our criminal justice system. Even something as basic as the air that he or she will breathe is more likely to be so polluted that it will cause him or her to develop a serious illness.
Although structural inequalities continue to hold back many Americans, the good news is that we can do something about it. The level of inequality that exists in the United States today is not set in stone. Through our democratic system of government, we collectively hold the power to organize our society in a way that is more equal and more just. Indeed, we can give every child in this country a fairer shot at being all that they can be.
Giving every child a fairer shot in life means enabling our government to collect a fair share of taxes from the nation’s highest earners to improve assistance programs and ensure that no child in America goes hungry. It means regulating the financial industry to prevent the type of recklessness that plunged our economy less than a decade ago into a recession that hit the poorest Americans the hardest. It means regulating the amount of pollution that corporations can release into the environment so that no child dies from the air that she breathes. It means setting higher standards for what our public schools can do and restructuring school funding in a way that is equitable across neighborhoods of different socioeconomic status.
Unfortunately, there are some people in the United States today who would not like to see our government do any of these things to reduce inequality. Instead, they advocate for policies that favor the highest earners with the false promise that those earnings will produce a trickle-down effect beneficial to the middle and lower class. In truth, a closer look at how trickle-down policies have impacted our society reveals that these policies have done nothing but exacerbate inequality in America.
From Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal that gave us Social Security to Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society that gave us Medicare, history shows that the government has an indispensable role to play in reducing societal inequality. Rather than reject the government, we should focus our collective energy on making it better. By embracing the spirit that made the New Deal and the Great Society possible, we can make our government more responsive to the needs of the most disadvantaged Americans.
Dennis O. Ojogho ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Winthrop House.
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