Is it better to be born rich or born smart? There's a definitive answer to that question — one, I am guessing, many people in the United States would rather not hear.
According to a study released last month by Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce, low-income kindergartners who received high scores on tests of academic talent fared significantly worse when it came to graduating from college and obtaining a desirable entry-level position than 5- and 6-year-old children who performed poorly but came from families in the top income quartile.
How much worse? The richer group of children, it seems, had to try very hard to fail — they had a 7 in 10 chance of meeting the milestones. For the less well off, the numbers were reversed. They had a 3 in 10 chance of meeting the goals.
I thought about that study this week when reading Nick Hanauer's mea culpa in the Atlantic for his previous position on education. Hanauer, who donated more than $1 million to public education reform efforts in the past, isn't against improving public education. But, he says, he has come to believe that education is no magic solve for income inequality. American families are in increasing economic pain not because they lack access to a quality education, but because they aren't getting paid adequately.
"Our education system can't compensate for the ways our economic system is failing Americans," he writes.
So why do we still believe otherwise? Well, a quality education is vital for a broad-based middle class. College graduates earn significantly more over the course of their lifetimes than those who don't receive a degree. And the further down the economic ladder someone is, the more likely his or her children will receive an inadequate education. Poorer children — be they rural white or inner-city minorities — are more likely to experience teacher turnover, fewer extracurricular activities, overcrowded classrooms and older textbooks.
It's easy to think fixing U.S. education is the solution. But that ignores the other reality. The children of the wealthy and well-to-do benefit not just from better-quality schools but also from an enormous support system. They are cushioned by a safety net of tutors and test prep, summer camps and the opportunity to pursue prestigious, unpaid internships. If they hit a rough patch, they will likely receive help.
In this sort of environment, it's almost impossible to fail. But when poorer children fall down, there is rarely a helping hand to help them get back up.
As Hanauer points out, the narrative that public education is failing, and that fixing it is the key to increasing income mobility, is being driven by some of the most moneyed and privileged members of our society. These are people like our current education secretary, Betsy DeVos, a billionaire who neither sent her own children to public schools nor attended one herself, and Bill Gates, the second-wealthiest man in the world. Pushing the narrative that schools, if run "properly," can provide equal chances to advance for all despite soaring inequality lets the top 1% off the hook for inequality.
Rather than acknowledge this, many of us tell ourselves that we live in a meritocracy and that better educational opportunities for all can give everyone a chance at success. But that denies the reality of our American aristocracy. The amount of nepotism and inherited privilege in our society is staggering. It starts at the top. Minus Fred Trump and his millions, it seems unlikely Donald Trump would be anything more than a huckster house-flipper. Minus Charles Kushner's multimillion-dollar contribution to Harvard University, it's impossible to believe Jared Kushner would have been admitted to its august campus.
To claim a faulty education is the main reason that many children are not getting ahead is, at best, to confuse cause with effect, and, at worst, out and out disingenuous. The most intelligent child in poverty is going to have a hard time of it. The children of the rich and well-to-do, be they smart or be they stupid, on the other hand, will likely make good. Brains have little to do with it.
Olen is a Washington Post columnist.