Americans still believe hard work is critical to success, but is it enough when children start out in such different circumstances?
Progressives in Congress and the media firmly believe many working-class and poor children and young adults are held back by structural racism, sexism, big-tech monopolies, and whatever new ism an enterprising academic or pundit can conjure up.
The federal government, foundations and even the corporate sector have put considerable pressure on the educational establishment to redress some of those imbalances. Blacks make up 18% of the Harvard freshman class versus 13% of the U.S. population, and about 57% of new college graduates are female.
Leveling the playing field
Attorney General Merrick Garland has targeted the new Georgia election law, because 29% of Blacks use absentee ballots versus 24% for whites, but the Justice Department seems little concerned about racial and gender outcomes in education that overcompensate and can instigate resentment.
Evening the starting line does matter, and it’s not just Democrats who want to do something about it. Republican Sen. Mitt Romney has advocated a permanent child allowance similar to the expanded child tax credit the Democrats want to make permanent.
Still, so much of the national debate centers on the ideological competition between critical race theory—structural racism is irrevocably embedded into the culture making even competitive market outcomes fundamentally flawed—and conservative orthodoxy—free-markets, free-trade and limited government are the only enlightened path.
The truth lies in between, but the pushing and pulling has given rise to federal welfare and state-enforced preferences that can too much handicap children and young adults seeking a path to success.
Pushed into low-paying majors
Too much of federal educational support system and local school policy is aimed at getting all qualified—and too many unqualified—high-school graduates to college, when fully half who enroll either drop out or obtain degrees that don’t yield decent paying jobs. They end up saddled with debt into middle age and ultimately attracted to politicians who tell them they are victims and offer handouts in the name of equity.
In reality, they are too often the victim of inadequate elementary and high schools.
If teachers, like progressive politicians and activists, constantly tell young people the country is endemically racist and the disadvantaged are purely its victims, then young people can feel overwhelmed and focus too little on what they need to succeed as adults.
If we want more minority and female engineers and technicians, public schools need to focus children less on the shortcomings of American society and social justice and more on math skills, hands on mechanical puzzles, critical thinking and conceptualizing approaches to tough engineering challenges to cultivate interest in STEM disciplines.
Too few STEM graduates
High schools let the children sort, and we end up with too few college students with the math and analytical instincts for STEM disciplines and too many majoring in the humanities and soft social sciences.
High school counseling gives short shrift to the private-sector apprenticeship programs sponsored by the Department of Labor. After two years, those deliver wages greater than the average for college graduates.
The upshot is employers lack the workers they need. And the economy has too many folks making sandwiches and serving coffee, on food stamps and in Section 8 housing and not enough engineers and trained technicians.
The Biden-Harris administration sees it all another way. It is doubling down on failed policies by expanding higher education, and lacing racial and gender preferences into American Jobs Plan and American Family Plan at every available opportunity—though many of those will not likely survive judicial scrutiny.
The administration’s industrial policies and Congress are targeting subsidies for physical manufacturing—pharmaceuticals, semiconductors, advanced batteries and critical materials and rare earth minerals—while seeking to dismember the high-tech giants that are doing so much of the expensive R&D that creates the software essential to the success of manufacturing.
That would be akin to subsidizing steelmaking but taxing automotive design in the 20th Century, but the president is excessively focused on factories and union cards. He has appointed antitrust officials with publicly pronounced positions against big big-tech.
Every child should have the essential resources to succeed but failing to focus on the genuine curricular shortcomings of K-12 education, repackaging the popular myth that college offers the golden ticket, and obsessing too much over social- justice issues will hardly succeed in lifting up the disadvantaged and radically address the root causes of inequality.
Peter Morici is an economist and emeritus business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.