The Exchange

Is the American Meritocracy Broken?

The Exchange

By Jennifer Wheary

We are suffering from a crisis of faith when it comes to meritocracy. We want badly to believe that our circumstances at birth, family connections and luck are less important in achieving economic success than initiative and hard work. The problem is that the instability and employment insecurity experienced during the recession by many hardworking, hard-driven individuals has turned this assumption on its head.

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The Dream Is Dead?

Americans by and large think that anyone who can work hard, should, and that anyone who works hard will succeed. That is what we teach our children. And it is what often comes to our minds when we see someone who is behind the economic eight ball. Those who do not succeed are not working hard enough, we believe.

Yet by the measure, many of use are not working hard enough. Three-quarters of Americans do not have six months of emergency savings in their bank accounts and more than 50 percent do not have sufficient income to maintain their current living standards in retirement.

Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution has written that: “…If you do just three things: stay in school at least through high school, don’t have a child until you’re married and over 21, and work full-time, your chances of being poor are only 2 percent and your chances of joining the middle class are 74 percent.”

Out of Reach

But what happens when moving from poverty into the middle class is not enough? That is the stage we are fast approaching.

For the working poor, today’s pervasive financial insecurity means that it is harder to move upward economically. But for the middle class, it means an ongoing susceptibility to unexpected financial shocks and an inability to adequately prepare for the future by saving for your children's education and for your own retirement.

It is important to realize that the working poor and middle class share the same interests in addressing widespread financial insecurity. That is a point that often gets lost in media coverage and political debate about the economy.

Employment provides one example: During the downturn, 60 percent of jobs lost nationwide were middle-income positions, yet most employment growth since the official end of the recession has been in low-wage occupations. The Department of Labor projects that under current conditions, the largest job growth over the coming decade will be in currently low-paying occupations such as home health aides, food service workers, and retail sales.

It's Time for Action

Supporting sustained private sector growth and the creation of American jobs – good jobs that meet basic standards of decent employment in pay, benefits, and worker protections – is one goal our lawmakers should take up as they start a new term. Pursuing this goal will benefit the working poor and the middle class alike.

We can make similar arguments about guaranteeing widespread access to affordable, quality education from early childhood through college for anyone who wants it and about creating new government-backed financial products that promote savings and thrift.

There is widespread belief that every American should have the opportunity to work hard at a job that supports a family, and that hard work should result in financial stability. Simply saying we believe that is not enough. We often hear that our democracy is broken. We can also say our meritocracy is broken.

We can make great strides in changing this if we get on the same page about a simple sentiment: It's not economic opportunity for the poor versus economic opportunity for the middle class — it's about prioritizing economic opportunity for all.

Jennifer Wheary is a senior fellow at Demos where she writes about current trends in education, economic opportunity and positive public policy. She holds an undergraduate degree from Cornell University and a PhD from the University of Illinois. Her writing appears online and in newspapers around the country. You can follow her on Twitter @edteachpolicy.

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