Before I was born, I spent some time researching prospective parents. It wasn’t the best time to choose, ah, Negroes — as they were known back then — but I thought I could nevertheless pick a pair prepared to give me a good head start in life.
So I chose a married couple, neither of whom was addicted to alcohol or drugs. They were hardworking, churchgoing and thrifty — the sort who eschewed credit cards, saved for retirement and were not seduced by the latest consumer trends.
Equally important, I picked a couple who were both college educated, though that was quite rare for black Americans then. They were able to help me with homework, steer me toward enriching after-school activities and help me navigate college choices.
Because I took the time to choose the right parents, my childhood was safe, secure and productive. I made good grades. I went to college. I started a fulfilling career. Clearly, my pre-birth research paid off.
Does that sound like a fairy tale? Do you doubt I had anything to do with picking my parents?
Well, you may be right, but we conduct our politics as if children are responsible for the families into which they are born. Just look at the recent farm bill passed by the GOP-dominated House of Representatives. While leaving subsidies to large agricultural entities intact, it cut out the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (or food stamps). Half of its beneficiaries are under the age of 18.
Even politicians more compassionate than House Republicans have a hard time grasping the increasing importance of parents’ education and income in dictating a child’s future. Horatio Alger mythology — the notion that anyone can succeed in America with enough pluck and hard work — is deeply ingrained in the national consciousness.
But if that were ever true, it’s not so now. Class (as defined by family income and parental educational attainment) is now more important than race in determining a child’s chances at climbing the economic ladder.
There is certainly good news in that. For centuries, race was a formidable barrier for black Americans, no matter how hard they worked, no matter how much education they attained. They were still limited by law and custom.
Now, there are few barriers to limit the aspirations of the children of President Barack Obama or the children of a broad black middle class. My own child will have more opportunities than I did — and lots more than her grandparents did. While racism is not dead, it’s a shadow of its former self, its influence steadily declining.
Meanwhile, though, new barriers have cropped up to limit the futures of children born to poor or working-class parents, whether they are black, white or brown. A globalized economy and technological breakthroughs have conspired to abolish the good-paying jobs that used to be available to workers with high school diplomas or less.
The modern economy demands highly skilled workers, but many children from less affluent homes are handicapped before they even enter first grade. They haven’t been frequent visitors to libraries, museums and zoos. They haven’t grown up in homes with books. And they never catch up.
For those poor and working-class kids who manage to navigate high school with success, the route to college is still difficult. They don’t get tutorials for college-entrance exams, help with college-entrance essays or tours of college campuses. Nor do they have the money to pay for tuition.
While most of us like to think that our successes are our own, that’s rarely true. Most of us are products of the environments in which we were reared — the parents who nurtured us, the neighborhoods that sheltered us, the grandparents who indulged us. We know what they taught us. It’s the rare person whose achievement stretches far beyond the foundation he was given in his childhood.
The United States has the resources to pour money into giving less-affluent children a rich educational foundation — from early childhood. But we don’t. We behave as if those kids should have chosen their parents better.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons