Social class, sex and race play far greater roles than individual intelligence or effort in determining success in American society, according to a national expert on education and employment.
"Years of social reform have done little more than pay lip service" to the idea of equal opportunity for all Americans, Richard H. de Lone says. "The dynamics of our social structure are not likely to produce more equality of opportunity unless there is more equality to begin with."
De Lone, a former director of the Carnegie Council on Children, was commissioned by the council to assess income distribution reports and recent social literature to find the determinants of childrens' futures in this country.
He says he found that the ultimate penalty of poverty is the influence on one's future of "growing up unequal," rather than the hardships imposed by a lack of material goods.
According to de Lone, recent social policy has overemphasized the influence of inherited genes and early childhood experience, when the real culprits depriving children of hope for the future are unemployment and unequal distribution of income.
The most destructive thing for children is to look at their marginally employed or out-of-work parents and feel they, too, have no place in society, de Lone says.
In "Small Futures: Children, Inequality and the Limits of Liberal Reform," de Lone draws the profiles of two American children he says are symptomatic of these societal problems.
Jimmy and Bobby are second graders. Both have slightly better than average IQ's and reading abilities. Both pay attention in class and enjoy school. But the two boys of seemingly similar abilities have very different futures in store.
Bobby is at least four times as likely to enroll in college as Jimmy, and, once there, has 12 times as great a chance of completing it.According to de Lone, Bobby is 27 times as likely as Jimmy to land a job which by his late 40s will pay him an income in the top tenth percentile. Jimmy has only one chance in eight of reaching the median income.
The difference between the two boys is Jimmy's relative poverty. De Lone calls the odds against Jimmy "the arithmetic of inequality in America." They can be calculated, he adds, when one considers that Bobby is the son of a successful lawyer, whereas Jimmy's father works as a part-time custodian. The boys' disparate futures demonstrate that the "escape hatch" of economic mobility is far smaller than most Americans think, according to the studies de Lone summarizes.
De Lones survey also cites other statistics:
The top 4 percent of U.S. families own 37 percent of personal wealth. The net worth of the average family in the bottom 20 percent is zero.
The top fifth of families receive some what over 40 percent of the country's net income, and families in the bottom fifth receive between 5 and 6 percent.
Only one male in five exceeds his father's social status through individual effort and achievement.
"Small futures" suggests major structural reforms to cope with the problems de Lone finds. The book advocates forceful national planning, with policies of full employment, targeted investment and redistribution of income through a mechanism such as the credit income tax.
But, recognizing that political realities make these goals only distant possibilities, de Lone recommends some immediate steps, such as large scale training of disadvantaged youth, since jobs are the key to mobility.