Social Inequality and the Access Myth

Is lack of opportunity the real problem?
By Heather A. Howley

In September 2015, President Obama said, “The students I hear from every day remind me that if we can come together around the idea that every American—no matter where they grew up or how much money their parents have—deserves a quality education and a shot at success, then we can build a future as remarkable as our past.”

It is difficult to pinpoint when the American dream transformed from something in which everyone was a potential participant into a lottery-like “shot at success.” Although always a rhetorical trope used to minimize social inequality in the United States, the American dream has been downgraded by both political parties, suggesting that a middle-class life is now reserved for the semielite—the ones who complete college and choose an in-demand career. Plans to eliminate tuition at community colleges or four-year public institutions will benefit the students who attend as well as their communities. Educated populaces are more economically productive, healthier (physically and relationally), and more engaged in the democratic process. However, these benefits, as great as they are, do not provide a solution to the destructive inequalities that affect low-wage workers.

The middle class was built largely through unions that fought for wages responsive to inflation and working conditions compatible with participation in family and community life. These same unions helped usher in an era of affordable health care and dependable retirement income. Even today, unions positively affect their communities, creating a climate of greater worker agency that leads to better working conditions as well as social mobility.

Increasing public goods such as education, transportation, public utilities, and health and safety services, in conjunction with regulating exploitative labor practices, has traditionally mitigated inequalities produced by the market. Neither of the major political parties today emphasizes these proven means. Republicans seem content to allow gaps between the wealthy and the rest of us to increase. The Democratic Party acknowledges that social inequality is a problem but, with the exception of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, subscribes to what I will refer to as the access myth: mobility through higher education. 

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Heather A. Howley is associate professor of communication at the University of Akron, Wayne College. She serves as treasurer for the Ohio AAUP conference. Her e-mail address is hhowley@uakron.edu.

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