The Myth of Meritocracy

Robert Reich

Robert Reich Former U.S. Secretary of Labor, Professor at Berkeley

Most Americans still cling to the meritocratic notion that people are rewarded according to their efforts and abilities. But meritocracy is becoming a cruel joke.

The Justice Department recently announced indictments of dozens of wealthy parents for using bribery and fraud to get their children into prestigious colleges.

But the real scandal isn’t how far a few wealthy parents will go to get their kids admitted (apparently $1.2 million in illegal payoffs), but how commonplace it has become for them to go almost as far without breaking any laws – shelling out big bucks for essay tutors, testing tutors, admissions counselors, and “enrichment” courses (not to mention sky-high tuition at private schools feeding into the Ivy League).  

Inequality is lurking behind all this, and not just because the wealthy can afford it. Researchers Daniel Schneider, Orestes Hastings, and Joe LaBriola found that in states with the biggest gaps between rich and poor, well-to-do parents spend the most trying to get their children into elite colleges.

America’s unprecedented concentration of wealth combined with seemingly bottomless poverty have increased parental anxiety – raising the stakes, and the competition, for admission.

While some entrepreneurs in America’s billionaire class lack a prestigious degree, it’s become harder to become a run-of-the-mill multimillionaire in America without one.

Most CEOs of big corporations, Wall Street mavens, and high-priced lawyers got where they are because they knew the right people. A prestigious college packed with the children of wealthy and well-connected parents is now the launching pad into the stratosphere of big money.

Elite colleges are doing their parts to accelerate the trend.

At a time when the courts have all but ended affirmative action for black children seeking college admission, high-end universities provide preferential admission to the children of wealthy alumni –“legacies,” as they’re delicately called.

Some prestigious colleges have even been known to make quiet deals with wealthy non-alums – admission for their kids with the expectation of a large donation to follow.

Jared Kushner’s father reportedly pledged $2.5 million to Harvard just as young Jared was applying. The young man gained admission, despite rather mediocre grades.

About four in 10 students from the richest one-tenth of one percent of American families now attend an Ivy League or other elite university, according to a recent study based on millions of anonymous tax filings and tuition records.

At some upscale campuses – including Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, Penn, and Brown – more students now come from the top 1 percent than from the entire bottom 60 percent put together.

By contrast, less than one-half of 1 percent of children from the bottom fifth of American families attend an elite college. Fewer than half attend any college at all.

A worse scandal is K-12 education, where geographic segregation by income is leaving poor school districts – partly reliant on local property taxes, which don’t generate much revenue– with fewer resources per pupil than richer districts.

Race is involved. School districts that are predominantly white get $23 billion more funding each year than districts serving mostly students of color.

When it comes to early childhood education – which education experts agree is vital to the future life chances of the very young – the gap has become a chasm.

Wealthy parents spare no expense stimulating infant and toddler brains with happy human interactions through words, music, poetry, games, and art. Too often, the offspring of poorer kids do little more than sit long hours in front of a television.

The monstrous concentration of wealth in America has not only created an education system in which the rich can effectively buy college admission for their children. It has distorted much else.

It has created a justice system in which the rich can buy their way out of prison. (Exhibit A: money manager Jeffrey Epstein, who sexually abused dozens of underage girls, yet served just thirteen months in a private wing of a Palm Beach county jail.)

It has spawned a political system in which the rich can buy their way into Congress (Exhibit B: Reps. Darreill Issa and Greg Gianforte) and even into the presidency. (Donald Trump, perhaps Starbuck’s Howard Schultz).

And a health care system in which the super-rich can buy care unavailable to others (concierge medicine).

Meritocracy remains a deeply held ideal in America. But The nation is drifting ever-farther away from it. In the age of Trump, it seems, everything is for sale.

***

Reposted from Robert Reich

Robert Reich served as the nation’s 22nd Secretary of Labor and now is a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. His latest book, Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future, is now in bookstores. His earlier book, “Supercapitalism,” is out in paperback. For copies of his articles, books, and public radio commentaries, go to www.RobertReich.org.

Posted In: Allied Approaches, From Robert Reich

Union Matters

Get to Know AFL-CIO's Affiliates: National Association of Letter Carriers

From the AFL-CIO

Next up in our series that takes a deeper look at each of our affiliates is the National Association of Letter Carriers.

Name of Union: National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC)

Mission: To unite fraternally all city letter carriers employed by the U.S. Postal Service for their mutual benefit; to obtain and secure rights as employees of the USPS and to strive at all times to promote the safety and the welfare of every member; to strive for the constant improvement of the Postal Service; and for other purposes. NALC is a single-craft union and is the sole collective-bargaining agent for city letter carriers.

Current Leadership of Union: Fredric V. Rolando serves as president of NALC, after being sworn in as the union's 18th president in 2009. Rolando began his career as a letter carrier in 1978 in South Miami before moving to Sarasota in 1984. He was elected president of Branch 2148 in 1988 and served in that role until 1999. In the ensuing years, he worked in various roles for NALC before winning his election as a national officer in 2002, when he was elected director of city delivery. In 2006, he won election as executive vice president. Rolando was re-elected as NALC president in 2010, 2014 and 2018.

Brian Renfroe serves as executive vice president, Lew Drass as vice president, Nicole Rhine as secretary-treasurer, Paul Barner as assistant secretary-treasurer, Christopher Jackson as director of city delivery, Manuel L. Peralta Jr. as director of safety and health, Dan Toth as director of retired members, Stephanie Stewart as director of the Health Benefit Plan and James W. “Jim” Yates as director of life insurance.

Number of Members: 291,000 active and retired letter carriers.

Members Work As: City letter carriers.

Industries Represented: The United States Postal Service.

History: In 1794, the first letter carriers were appointed by Congress as the implementation of the new U.S. Constitution was being put into effect. By the time of the Civil War, free delivery of city mail was established and letter carriers successfully concluded a campaign for the eight-hour workday in 1888. The next year, letter carriers came together in Milwaukee and the National Association of Letter Carriers was formed.

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