Equal opportunity and equal outcome are terms people tend to use interchangeably. They are very different things. Opportunity is where you start, outcome is where you finish.
I’ve seen arguments that everyone has an equal opportunity. The idea that people can overcome their circumstances is very simplistic idea. It is an idea that makes us feel good. It is an idea that gives us hope, that if we work hard, we can have the American Dream. But the idea and reality are pretty far off.
Everyone has an equal opportunity. To start with, when we say everyone, we need to mean everyone.
Let’s go visit China for a moment. Under the one child policy, your opportunity at being born is at risk if you happen to have the wrong chromosome. Yes this is an extreme instance, but it does show that the opportunity for being born is not equal.
I recognize this example is hard to relate to in the United States, so let’s discuss education, higher education.
In order to be given an opportunity to attend college, you must first start with paying application fees. Imagine being born into a financial situation where paying the application fee is not possible. We have our first inequality when we compare it to people who are born into situations where paying this fee is a non-issue.
The counter argument, then get a job to pay for it.
One person gets a job and now balances school and work. This limits their ability to participate in extra curricular activities. They may not be able to participate in activities which they excel in, that could open up scholarship opportunities or future connections.
One person has a choice, work or not work. If they choose not to work they may participate in extra curricular activities that make them more appealing to colleges and universities, those extra curricular activities may open them up to scholarship opportunities, they may be able to play sports. Or they can simply focus on being a good student.
Once you get to college it is an expensive proposition. Balancing work and college life is not easy. Student loans are an option, but that puts you in debt once you graduate.
We’ll skip to graduation. A good way to get a job after you graduate is through an internship. Most internships are unpaid. Most internships have schedules like a full time job.
After you graduate you can do an internship if someone is able to pay for you to live while you work for free. You may not be collecting a paycheck but you are rewarded with connections, you are rewarded with contacts. In the business world they say it is not what you know but who you know. Through an internship, you get to meet the people you need to know so you can navigate your career.
If after you graduate you have to pay for student loans while also paying to live, getting that internship is probably out of the question. Who you know, is not there. You miss out on the contacts and connection.
This is a very real scenario. You have two hard working people. But one person had opportunities that were out of reach to the other.
In the world we live in, the playing field is not level. It is far from equal.
If the playing field were a mountain-
Some start a few feet from the summit.
Some start in the middle.
Some start at the bottom.
And some start in a hole.
You are born into opportunity. Seeking to equal opportunity is about giving people a fair chance, so when they work hard they can climb the mountain.
When we say people can overcome their circumstances it makes us feel good, but feeling good does not fix something that is broken.