It's Hard to Make It in America

How the United States Stopped Being the Land of Opportunity

Teresa Villanueva (R) and her 11-year-old daughter Laritza receive help on their charter school application from Barrio Logan College Institute counselor Jennifer Pena (C) in San Diego, California February 7, 2013.  Mike Blake / Reuters


Students protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, 2012. (Jose Luis Magana / Courtesy Reuters)

UPDATE: June 25, 2013
In its decision in Fisher v. University of Texas, which was handed down yesterday, the Supreme Court kicked the affirmative action can down the road. In the case, two white students who had applied to the University of Texas at Austin and were denied admission claimed that the university had discriminated against them on the basis of race. The Court ruled that a lower court should reexamine its initial decision in the case.

Some observers had expected the Supreme Court to use the case to further restrict or altogether forbid consideration of race in college admissions decisions. Although that didn't happen, the story isn't over, as the Court may revisit the issue in another case as early as next year. In any event, the use of race-based affirmative action has already been declining for more than a decade. In some states, that is due to judicial rulings and in others to legislation or public referendum. That trend is likely to continue.

But affirmative action may have a new life ahead of it. As I wrote in “It’s Hard To Make It in America," the biggest obstacle to equality of opportunity in the United States today is family background, not race. Over the past few decades, affirmative action has proved effective in expanding opportunity for African Americans and for women. While there are many steps we could take to improve opportunity for Americans from poor families, including universal early education and a more generous Child Tax Credit, class-based affirmative action should be front and center in the conversation.

For all the differences between Democrats and Republicans that were laid bare during the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign, the parties' standard-bearers, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, do seem to have agreed on one thing: the importance of equal opportunity. In remarks in Chicago in August, Obama called for an "America where no matter who you are,

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