Equality of Opportunity: Part I

As I write this, it is the first week of 2021. When a new year starts, it is an opportunity to start anew. A blank page. And, lord knows, we need one. Indeed, as I stared at this blank page trying to decide how to start this new year, the word that kept popping into my head was “opportunity.” America defines itself as a “land of opportunity.” Whatever your political persuasion, Equality of Opportunity is probably important to you. Abraham Lincoln summed up the American ethos thus: “I will learn, the opportunity will come.”

But, the idea of equal opportunity is incredibly vague. Until a few years ago, I had never really thought hard about how to even define equal opportunity. For me, that lack of hard thought changed when I read a book called “Equality of Opportunity” by John E. Roemer. So, I want to take a few posts over the next month or so to summarize my interpretation of this book. Plus, once we have a definition of Equality of Opportunity, we can actually take it to the data and see: is America the Land of Opportunity? It’s going to be fun (OK, maybe) and interesting (definitely)!

Defining Equality of Opportunity: Preliminaries

Before even attempting to define Equality of Opportunity, I want to define two narrower concepts: 1) circumstances; and 2) effort. To define these concepts, it will help to have an example to focus on. So, let’s use the example of going to college. We would all agree that equal opportunity to go to college is important for those with the desire. Especially since technology is biased towards those with a degree.

We will define “circumstances” as the set of things that are out of somebody’s control, but that may affect the outcome we care about.  With respect to college enrollment, a variety of different things can be thought of as circumstances. For example, having parents that went to college could matter, since they would better understand admissions processes.  Or, children with low-income parents might have to work for pay when teenagers, getting in the way of studying. And of course, going to school with a SAT program or a range of extracurriculars doesn’t hurt. Since children don’t pick their parents or their school, these things are circumstances.

We will define “effort” as the ingredient that someone has control over that helps them achieve the outcome.  In the college example, effort might be measured by the time spent doing homework. Or, the number of hard classes taken, the practice SAT tests completed, or clubs attended. Maybe even how long one spent writing those annoying college essays. I still don’t know where I see myself in 20 years…maybe rich? 

The key to defining Equality of Opportunity is how circumstances and effort equate to outcomes. But before presenting a definition, I want to state the obvious. Any definition of Equality of Opportunity is not likely to hold in reality. Rather, these definitions allow us to put an ideal into words and, more importantly, into something that can be measured. Think of it as something to strive for in a new year. With that said, let’s turn to a first stab at a definition.

Equality of Opportunity Definition 1: Amount of Effort

When I ask my students to define equality of opportunity, many of them land in the same spot. “People who put in the same amount of effort, should achieve the same outcome, regardless of their circumstances.” The definition sounds reasonable enough. In the college example, people who study hard, practice for standardized tests, work hard on their essays, and lead many clubs should all be able to make it equally into college. Sounds nice. Parents poor? No problem, here’s a grant or loan! High school without a college counselor? Society will make sure you still know to take those practice SATs!

And, as an ideal, we are almost certainly falling short of this definition. A study from the early 2000s offers a good measure in the context of college admissions. The study — by Stefanie Deluca and Hames Rosenbaum — looked at how time spent on homework in high school translated to educational attainment. They found that children with high-income parents who spent 15 hours a week on homework achieved 15.4 years of schooling. Nearly a bachelor’s degree. Kids with low-income parents who spent the same amount of time achieved 13.8 years of education. Nearly an associate’s degree. Think that doesn’t matter? Remember, people with a bachelor’s degree make 31 percent more than those with an associate’s. Equal work, 31 percent less income.

So, we have a definition. And, we found out that it doesn’t hold. So, why aren’t we done? Because I would argue that this definition doesn’t go far enough. In other words, even if we did implement this definition and guaranteed those 15 hour workers all reached the same education, we would still have inequality of opportunity as most of us define it.

The Problem with the Amount of Effort Definition

When we say we want equal opportunity, what do we mean? Imagine the following. You are in the maternity ward of a hospital. A shady figure points to two kids (creepy, I know!), and asks you to wager on which one attends college. All that you know is that one kid’s parents make $150,000 a year, the other $35,000 a year. Who would you bet on? What we want to answer is: “I don’t know…their outcome will be dictated by their effort and desire.” But, if you actually think you can give that answer with a straight face, I have a bridge to sell you.

The problem is, that even under our equal opportunity definition above, you’d probably still be better off betting on the kid with higher earning parents. Why? Because the amount of effort someone puts towards a goal like college might differ by circumstances. And, if kids with higher-income parents strive more for an outcome like college, we will still have unequal attendance.

Now, it may sound like I’m saying that kids with lower-income parents are lazier. Far from it. But these children’s efforts may be differently directed. Let me give you an example from the data. Shirley Porterfield and Anne Winkler used a variety of datasets to analyze how teenagers spent their time. They divided teens up into kids with no college-educated parent and kids with a college-educated parent. And, they documented how much time the kids spent in paid work versus school homework. A main result of the study is below.

Figure 1. Share Working for Pay versus School Work, by Parents’ Education

Source: Adapted from Porterfield and Winkler (2007).

The figure shows that kids with less-educated parents spend more time working for pay and less time on homework. But, if you sum up the height of the two bars you see near equality of effort. 44.4 percent of kids with less-educated parents either work 20 hours for pay or 10 hours on homework, i.e., they are “hard workers.” 43.8 percent of kids with college educated parents do the same. But, the kids with more educated parents direct the effort towards the outcome of college. This sort of gap exists for private SAT-prep and extracurriculars as well.

Defining Effort is Hard

The takeaway from the above is that defining effort is not as easy as it seems. Clearly, both groups of kids are putting time into work. Roughly 44 percent of each group is “working hard.” One is directing their time to paid work, probably to help their families make ends meet. The other towards school work, because it’s unnecessary to earn money except to have fun. Under our definition of Equality of Opportunity, the kids with highly-educated parents put in more effort to go to school. Under this definition, they would appear to deserve to have better outcomes than the other children.

Of course, the reason I called it Definition 1 is because, to me, this flaw is fatal. And, as I understand it, this is John E. Roemer’s argument as well. How can we hold people responsible for their level of effort towards school, when clearly their circumstances affect that level? Put differently, how do we think a hard worker with less-educated parents would respond to being in a higher-resource family? The student would probably shift their effort to schoolwork.

The idea of Equality of Opportunity is to hold people responsible for what’s in their control. As it’s defined here, effort towards school is not completely in one’s control. It’s dictated by circumstances. Fortunately, getting to a definition that gets us closer to where we want to is possible. But I’ll save that for next time.

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