The 'Opportunity Gap' is What Should Concern Us

Thoughtful piece by Andrew Quinn of AEI, writing in the  Federalist.  Conservatives believe in equality of opportunity -- "fairness at the starting line of life, not forced equality at the finish line,” as Quinn puts it.

But in modern America, with redistributionist schemes a feature of governance, how can we prevent the continuing slide into socialism? Closing the opportunity gap is a good idea but what if those who need opportunity the most fail to take advantage?

Conservatives have little patience for no-strings-attached transfers, but many are amenable to things like vocational training. Such programs seem like straightforward ways to expand opportunity. Offer classes and guidance to people who seek to learn new skills and become more attractive hires. That’s how you offer a hand up—and that beats a handout eight days a week.

It may not be that easy. In their new book Scarcity, behavioral economist Sendil Mullainathan and psychologist Eldar Shafir complicate that distinction. They note that many poor people fail to follow through on promising opportunities—even, curiously enough, when money is no object. Across the world, poor people are disproportionately unlikely to get their children vaccinated even when all they have to do is sign up; they are disproportionately reluctant to wash their hands even though this is cost-free. Low-income Americans on Medicaid, which pays for their prescriptions, still fail to take their medication regularly.

This phenomenon defies the assumptions of standard economics. People whose lives are teetering on the brink have more incentive than anyone to seize on free and low-cost opportunities to improve their lot. But, the data show, they are in fact the least likely group to take advantage of these opportunities. What gives?

Mullainathan and Shafir developed several experiments to find out. In one study, they administered a cognitive test to farmers in India at various times of the year. The test, called the “Stroop task,” measures fluid intelligence and executive control. To paraphrase, it looks both at the subjects’ raw mental bandwidth and their ability to focus and channel that horsepower. The researchers found that farmers systematically did worse in the months leading up to the harvest, when the funds from the last harvest were starting to run out. The stress of financial scarcity markedly limited their cognition. When they measured the farmers post-harvest, after abundance had been restored, their disability disappeared.

America does not have the kind of grinding poverty found in India and other developing countries. But the poverty stricken in the US act much the same as those in poorer countries. With a plethora of programs designed to help, most simply don't take advantage of the opportunity to go back to school , or train for a good job, or better their lives in a meaningful way.

This is why redistributionist policies are so poisonous. They don't work and they only add to the hopelessness felt by so many who are poor. An argument can be made that it's class, not skin color that is holding back many living below the poverty line. And no amount of government handouts is going to change that reality.