The Opportunity Gap Myth
By Josh Loveless
This is my first real blog post. I am not sure I know how to write a blog. But I do know you have to write about something close to you or something you are passionate about. For me that’s the politics and sociology of the United States of America, the land of opportunity.
That word, opportunity, was used constantly during the 2012 Presidential Election cycle by both parties. Each side claims that there is a gap in the opportunities available to American citizens. One side fervently argues that the rich have more opportunity because of outdated policies and loopholes. The other side fervently argues that opportunity for the middle class is dwindling because of excessive government and out of control spending. Both sides however agree that there is in fact a gap in opportunity.
This is a long held belief in America, that access to opportunity is important and that some have more access than others. In other words, as President Obama likes to quip, the “Playing field is not level.” It is strongly believed by many that opportunity abounds for the wealthy members of our society and that there are little or no opportunities for the poor. I guess the middle class is the median by this proposal?
In order to understand a potential opportunity gap we first have to understand what opportunity is. I am not trying to patronize here. I want to go beyond the definition. We all know that opportunity means a chance for success. But where does it actually come from, where do the conditions necessary for success originate?
First, life itself IS an opportunity. Simply being born and remaining alive means we have the chance to experience first-hand both the good and the bad that a human existence has to offer. To all humanity that opportunity is simply inherent and equal.
Then there are environmental opportunities. These opportunities exist simply by where and to whom a person was born, and with what natural gifts they may have. A person born in Central Africa does not have the same environment as a person born in Mongolia, Venezuela, or Canada. Access to natural resources, level of education and culture are obviously different for every person.
I hope that we are all mature enough to recognize that you cannot “level the playing field” when it comes to environmental opportunities. Technology has helped somewhat, but there will always be differences that cannot be reconciled. Genetics alone prove that beyond any shadow of doubt.
So when we talk about opportunity gap we are talking about the things we have control over. In other words we are talking about conditions that we as human beings create. That’s an important concept. These types of opportunities are not inherent. Somebody somewhere must exert some effort to manufacture this opportunity.
This would be the difference between say an Ivy League education and a community college education, and furthermore no education at all. Someone believed that they could create a superior education experience and therefore built a school and offered at a premium a quality education. It is this “pool of created opportunities” that politicians believe can be leveled through government taxes, regulation, and policy.
But I personally find this notion to be the greatest of all American fallacies. The idea itself is contrary to the very nature of these “opportunities of creation”. It implies that there are a limited number of total opportunities, and therefore a limit on human intelligence. It implies that once created, it can only exist in a finite box. While that may be true to the extent that there are only 24 seats in a certain Harvard classroom, there is nothing to say that Harvard can’t build another. Or, that a competitor can’t build a new and improved class and campus that allows for additional students.
The very idea that there will ever be a “level playing field” is a small minded one. In fact it is when the playing field is the least level that opportunity abounds. It is out of struggle that ideas are born and creativity abounds. If humans had perfect minds that functioned like a computer we would never have invented the computer in the first place. That’s just a rudimentary example, but I hope you see my point.
To further explain my view on this point you need to know a little about my background. Yes, I am a white male living in the U.S. I was born into a white family with two parents who tried to raise me correctly. It was not a perfect home but it was a home and from that perspective I would never be one to argue that my access to environmental opportunities wasn’t very great.
But we struggled too. My parents had six children. My Dad worked hard, but we sometimes struggled. I love my parents, they always made sure that I had clothes on my back and food and a roof under which to live. As I became a teenager the struggles deepened.
My Dad lost his job. He remained out of work or was severely under-employed for many years. My Mom became the main breadwinner of the family. I love my Mom and she worked hard at a local eye doctor. But she had no education and her salary wasn’t exactly above poverty-line. She would supplement by cleaning offices at night, a task that I helped her with throughout high school without pay.
Bills mounted just like they do for everyone. Life just happens. Let’s just say I know what people mean when they talk about the taste of government cheese. It became apparent to me that if I wanted to have a few “extras” in my life I would need to work. So at age 14 I got my first job. By 15 I recognized my income simply wasn’t going to cut the mustard if I wanted new school clothes, or the chance to have an occasional lunch that wasn’t in a paper sack.
I started taking multiple jobs at a time, working fervently during the school year and doubly so over the summers. I have worked full time (36+ hours) since that time (with the exception of my mission, which was 16 months). Oh I have worked every job imaginable. I have dug ditches, sold shoes, moved pipe, cleaned pig stalls, and even spent a summer working in a lake of human feces because it was the highest paying job I could find (that’s not a metaphor, nor am I exaggerating).
I did this in order to create opportunity for myself. I did this to give myself comfort both in the present and in the hope of a better future. While everyone else was enjoying their high school years, playing sports, going on dates, attending something called a prom (something I never experienced) I was working.
This was in South East Idaho. The school I went to wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great. Many of the teachers were full-time farmers and part-time teachers. I struggled to manage my grades and work full time. But I still worked hard at it, recognizing even then that my access to education opportunities were “shrinking” every day.
After high school I applied to several universities. But as you know, they are competitive. They didn’t care that my modest GPA (3.4) was the result of my workload. If they had looked at my transcript they would have seen straight A’s in over 10 AP classes. I didn’t get into the schools I wanted, but I did get accepted to BYU. I was ecstatic.
I did all the things I was supposed to do. I applied for grants, but got denied. I applied for scholarships, but didn’t qualify. I applied for government loans, but the approved amount was not sufficient (the student loan program didn’t work then like it does now). I applied for other commercial loans to make up the difference, but I had no credit.
It became pretty obvious that a university education was not in the cards for me at that time in my life. My opportunities again appeared to be “shrinking”. I suppose if I applied today’s societal thoughts to my situation I would have been pretty bitter. I mean hadn’t I been paying into the system just like any other worker? I had been paying thousands in taxes since age 14.
But I didn’t accept that. I didn’t think that way. Instead I went to work. I found my way into the IT industry. I looked for ways to get a real world education and move up the ladder. I busted my butt, working nights and weekends, sometimes 70 or more hours a week. In other words I paid my dues; I created opportunity for myself when it appeared none existed.
So now here I am at age 34. I admit, I’ve had a good run. I’ve finally got an income and a job that is helping me pay for that university education. I don’t have tons of discretionary money, but it’s enough that I can take the kids out to eat once in a while. It’s enough that we can afford one moderate family vacation each year. It’s enough that I can put my kids in organized sports and maybe give them piano lessons. It’s enough that I get to help create opportunities for my children that I simply didn’t have access to.
It’s not the rich life, but it’s a good one. These are the opportunities that I have created for myself. They weren’t given to me. I didn’t take them from someone else. My having them doesn’t lessen the chance of anyone else in the world to do the same or better.
But now here we are back at my original point. In 2013 the United States is facing a fiscal cliff. For all intents and purposes we are hurling at this cliff at an incredible speed. The argument of a “level playing field” that was campaigned so heavily on has still not been decided. We are very likely to drive over the cliff at full speed, just so that each side of the debate can “prove a point”.
President Obama once said, “Elections have consequences”. This is so very true, if not somewhat obvious and patronizing. In this case I want you the reader to know what the consequence is for me and my family. If we go over the fiscal cliff my federal taxes will overnight jump by a substantial margin. In fact, the margin is high enough that my entire discretionary budget will be wiped out completely.
That means I don’t get that extra time off to enjoy my small vacation. It means I have to back to working harder to cover the incidentals that just happen because life happens. It means more long nights and weekends, and more paying dues. It means I won’t be able to finish my university education after all. It means that my kids probably won’t get those music lessons I was hoping to provide. It means my family will have less to spend on leisure activities and vacations that build our family morale. It means they probably won’t get to play team sports for a while.
Now I ask you the reader, is that what is meant by “leveling the playing field”? How is that level? So it is to be believed that because my environmental circumstances were slightly more favorable than another’s, that they deserve the opportunities that I have created for myself? This, some believe, is fairer? Who is this mysterious arbiter of fair, because I have some words for them.
In this small minded, selfish, modern philosophy it is to be believed that because of the color of my skin, the place of my birth, my gender, my parentage, or my religion that I am less deserving or less “entitled” to the fruits of my labor. It is to be believed that my opportunities should be taken from me and given to another. More troublesome, the opportunities I have created for my children must be taken so that others may have them.
Surely when you look at the life of a single middle-class American family faced with higher taxes, decreased wages due to inflation, higher costs for basic goods and services, you the reader can see the disparity of this philosophy. I at least hope you can. I have never been, nor will I ever be, ashamed to be an American. But this idea is wrong. It is shameful. And it is disgusting.
I have hope for myself because I do not believe in this philosophy. I do not believe there is a limit to the number and types of opportunities in this world. I do not believe that there is in fact a finite pool of chances that have to be “spread around”. I do not believe in the myth of the opportunity gap.
And it’s not that I am heartless. Remember? I know what government cheese tastes like. I give as much as I am able to charities that directly benefit folks in need. But then that too will be affected by the approaching fiscal cliff. In fact the idea that this philosophy of a “level playing field” is a “Christian” one is even more of a fallacy. If you disagree, I would simply point you Jesus’ parable of the talents (Mathew 25: 14-30). I don’t see anywhere in there where the man who magnified his talents was told to give it to the one who did not.
I will find a way, as I always do when faced with adversity, to create new opportunities for myself and my family. But if I am being honest with myself, it’s getting harder every day to be the optimist. It’s getting harder every day to believe that I can create more opportunity for myself and others. Because when I do, I know that someone out there will believe that he/she has claim to the fruits of my labor. I’ve been working full time for 20 years now, and some days I feel really old and tired. I don’t think that is what 34 is supposed to feel like.
LIFEZILLA: I hear a laugh track every time I open my wallet