Stomping on the American Dream

November 24 2015

Dear America,

Can we move on from our obsession with rags-to-riches? Our fixation with individuality has blinded us to the fact it's super hard to go from a pauper to a (figurative) princess. Statistically, it just ain't gonna happen. Yet we're all enamored with it so much we refuse to admit it's a lie.

But that's not true you cry! [Insert someone you know, heard of, or saw on TV] did it!

Dammit, I just told you to stop fixating on the individual. Just because an individual achieves it doesn't mean it holds true for the population.

A level playing field means everyone has equal opportunities to achieve, and if they try hardest they should be the most successful. I hope we're all mature enough to admit we weren't all born as the exact same robot entity. We're different, and some of those differences have a big impact on our ability to achieve. But let's control for those factors by looking at the entire US population.

Let's divide the population into five sections, aka quintiles, with the poorest 20% in the bottom quintile all the way up to the richest 20% in the top quintile. If the playing field were truly level, you would have a 20% chance of ending up in any quintile regardless of which quintile you grew up in. In other words, those born into families in the top or bottom quintile would have the same chance of winding up in the top quintile! That is to say, a 20% chance. Our sample size is large enough that statistically these values would hold true if everyone actually had the same opportunities. This concept is called economic mobility.

In the US, if you are born into the lowest quintile, you have a 1% chance to make it to the top 5%. If everything was equal you'd have a 5% chance. For perspective, you are at a 500% disadvantage. That is enormous, it's like someone just plopped Mt. Everest onto your level playing field.

But we are so obsessed with agency, the ability for an individual to control their lives, that we completely ignore structure, the system in which they live their life. Yes, it is possible to climb Mt. Everest if you weren't born on the top (ok, maybe this analogy is falling apart, but stick with me here). But it's a hell of a lot harder to climb from the bottom. Agency is making that journey up the mountain. It's hard, and you should be applauded for achieving it. But structure is pointing out that starting at the bottom is a severe disadvantage. Thus the term structural violence: the system is literally holding you down and killing you. It may sound like a bs academic term, but your life expectancy is directly correlated with your income, your race, and even your sexual orientation.

So I challenge everyone born on top of the mountain, or toward the top, to be cognizant of the fact you are most likely a white, heterosexual male living in a structure built to support white, heterosexual males. That doesn't belittle your accomplishments, it acknowledges the reality you live in. And if you did claw your way up from the bottom, do you really want to continue propagating a system that disadvantages people like you?


Dirk, a white, heterosexual, male software developer tired of his coworkers looking just like him.
[email protected]
Seattle, WA

p.s. Reach out, we're often hiring!

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