Meritocracy’s Casualties

Meritocracy’s Casualties

The individualist credo is exacerbating already steep inequality and driving elites to protect their privilege by any means—even criminal ones.

Felicity Huffman and husband William H. Macy arrive at John Moakley U.S. Courthouse for Huffman's sentencing hearing. (Paul Marotta/Getty Images)

The college admissions scandal that implicated Hollywood stars and other wealthy parents produced its first convictions in September, with actor Felicity Huffman among the growing list of those sentenced to prison time for engaging in bribery and fraud to get their children into a selective college (though in Huffman’s case for a short term of fourteen days). The nature of this scandal—which involved FBI wiretaps, paid-off SAT proctors, and even doctored photos of students playing sports—turned an intense media spotlight on the spectacularly unethical behavior of certain well-off families. But the scandal is a symptom of a much deeper problem in modern American life: widening income inequality and the destructive competition it engenders across the class divide.

When income inequality rises, the stakes of the economic game rise. Where children end up along a steep gradient of academic achievement matters all the more for their chances later in life. For example, in 2018, edging your way into the top 5 percent of earners would have made your household $119,000 richer than one that had just made it into the top 20 percent; back in 1978, that difference was just $56,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars. Because every step up the ladder pays off more, parents feel greater pressure to do all they can to improve their kids’ prospects. The payoff for cheating grows, too—even elaborate frauds of the sort that William Rick Singer and his team allegedly perpetrated to get his high-profile clients’ kids into Stanford, Yale, the University of Southern California, and other schools. (Singer, who pleaded guilty to fraud and a host of other criminal charges in March, admitted to bribing university administrators and colluding with wealthy parents to secure admission for their children.)

Beyond the ranks of celebrities and the elite, economic anxieties abound. It has become commonplace to observe that children from middle-class families are less likely to achieve a better standard of living than their parents. And as those chances dwindle, a greater burden falls on children and their parents to ensure their future success.

This may take the form of “helicopter parenting,” the much-derided micromanaging of children’s academic and social lives. Helicopter parents are generally depicted as entitled and affluent, but there is evidence that parents across the class spectrum keenly feel pressure to take an active role in their children’s schedules. A study by Washington University sociologist Patrick Ishizuka, for instance, finds that both rich and poor parents nowadays support forms of “intensive parenting.”

But less well-off parents don’t have as much money to spend on learning and enrichment activities. That has always been the case, of course, but recent research finds that this resource gap grows as inequality grows. In states where income inequality is higher, higher-income parents ramp up their spending on tutoring, extracurriculars, and private schools, according to Berkeley sociologist Daniel Schneider and his collaborators. The widening gap in such investments creates a vicious cycle; those further down the income bracket can’t keep up.

Related trends are compounding this problem. Analyzing survey data on how 37,600 households spent their money between 2003 and 2017, Schneider and Colorado State University sociologist Orestes P. Hastings find that married parents invest hundreds of dollars more in child care, schooling, and extracurricular activities every year than cohabiting or single parents do, even controlling for a range of related factors. Here, too, class plays a role: 84 percent of children whose mothers have a bachelor’s or more advanced degree live in married households, compared to 58 percent of children whose mothers have a high school diploma or less schooling.

The parental resource gap is important because the investments that affluent parents make in their children set them up for future financial success. While this gap seems to be driven by activity at the very top, it isn’t just about paying for elite prep schools or Mandarin-speaking nannies. More prosaically, it includes the “shadow education system,” the array of enrichment activities—from SAT prep classes to cram schools—that many households use to supplement what children learn in school. It also includes well-educated parents with the free time, knowledge, and resources to offer an informal curriculum of reading to their children and trips to museums, zoos, or concerts. It’s important to question whether parents should really be thinking of the time and money they spend on their children as human-capital investments, but however twisted, this strategy seems to pay off, research finds, in terms of improved academic achievement—and, ultimately, better career outcomes.

In more equal countries, there is less support for intensive parenting. It is easy to see why. If how well your children do in school makes less of a difference in where they end up in life, then there are fewer incentives to pile on extra enrichment. But in the United States, with its frayed safety net and relatively meager assistance for families, the pressures on parents are more intense. And changes in the job market have heightened this competition. Rising degree requirements for many jobs (what sociologists call “credential inflation”) mean that students need more—or more prestigious, or more targeted—education to signal their worth to employers.

Yet the sorts of colleges that children get into—or whether they even go to college—depend heavily nowadays on how much their parents make, or who they know. The Hollywood cheating scandal was an extreme case where some extremely privileged parents broke the law, but wealthy families have plenty of perfectly legal ways to get their children special consideration, including donating large sums of money to universities.

What can also get lost in the sensational nature of these sorts of scandals is how contemporary U.S. culture, with its emphasis on individualism, exacerbates the hyperinequality and hypercompetition that feed such behavior. The belief in meritocracy—that the talented and hard-working should rise to the top of the social order—becomes toxic when true equality of opportunity does not exist. It becomes a way of legitimizing grossly unequal outcomes.

The problem is not that Americans have become more dishonest over time. Perhaps paradoxically, the culture of meritocracy breeds a culture of cheating. We have created a complex, expansive, and fundamentally flawed architecture of metrics to gauge the performance of students, teachers, and colleges. The intense pressure to compete based on merit has, in turn, launched a whole industry of test preparation and consulting to give those who can afford it an edge. It has prompted elites to find new ways to game the system. In his study of an elite prep school, for instance, sociologist Shamus Rahman Khan describes the endless array of academic offerings and student groups that allow any student there to claim to be “the best” at, or the “president” of, something—ensuring that no wealthy child is left behind in the college admissions race. From this sort of resume padding, it is just a short step to exaggerating, then fabricating, one’s achievements.

Even more pernicious, the rhetoric of meritocracy has been used to justify the obliteration of any sorts of measures to moderate the inequality it has caused. Over the past several decades, political leaders have let markets run loose, and corporations have eviscerated labor unions with the justification that doing so allows true merit to rise to the top. For example, Margaret Thatcher, one of the most prominent faces of neoliberalism, famously spoke out against the “pursuit of equality,” arguing that fostering individual achievement makes societies great. Thatcher—and her counterpart across the Atlantic, Ronald Reagan—invoked such notions of fairness and meritocracy as they sought to dismantle the welfare state and crush labor unions. They promoted the view that government is wasteful and inefficient, a haven for untalented workers who would fail in the private sector. Individuals should be judged on their personal abilities and performance, they argued, instead of protected by “unfair” union practices of seniority and collective bargaining.


The ideal of meritocracy touted by neoliberals has, however, turned out to be a sham. In a society where parents confer advantages to their children, and some are better able to do it than others, opportunities to acquire talents and skills become lopsided. Parents with means give their kids a head start in the race. The British sociologist Michael Young, who coined the term “meritocracy,” recognized this: in the fictional society he imagined, where talent and hard work perfectly determined people’s place in society, those who landed at the top of the hierarchy eventually sought to exploit the system for the gain of their offspring.

What has emerged in the United States is, at best, a stunted meritocracy—a rigged game. Those in the middle and lower tiers of the economic order are told it is possible to rise by one’s individual merits, and that collective action is ineffective, or worse, destructive. Instead of joining unions, they should focus on moving up the corporate ladder; instead of banding together for political change, they should get educated and get ahead on their own. And yet, at the very top, elites continually organize for their collective benefit, from large corporations lobbying for tax breaks to highly paid professionals walling off their fields from outside competition.

Ironically, due to soaring income inequality, affluent families are arguably most vulnerable to the social and psychological effects of frenzied competition. The children of the wealthy families that hired Singer to get them into colleges didn’t necessarily need bachelor’s degrees to make money or become successful, and one might wonder whether admission to those schools was really worth multiple felony counts for their parents. But as sociologists know well, people don’t typically evaluate their opportunities with a rational view of costs and benefits. Instead, they look to see what others in their peer group are doing. In this context, it makes sense that Hollywood stars would want their children to go to Yale, just like their friends’ children do.

Glimpsing a future in which many of the economy’s good jobs have been offshored, outsourced, or automated away, parents across the socioeconomic spectrum are justifiably concerned about their children’s prospects. One response that refuses to buy into the corrupt game is collective action: parents could organize to bring about policies or programs that push back or at least soften some of these trends. We could, among other things, provide a stronger social safety that would help less advantaged households invest more in their children and thereby narrow the parental resource gap that now exists. To pay for it, we could, as Bernie Sanders suggests, “abolish” billionaires—or, at the very least, use taxes and regulations to ratchet down the obscene corporate compensation and inherited wealth that fuel what Elizabeth Warren and others have described as an arms race over parental investments at the very top.

If, on the other hand, we accept the rise of inequality and leave it to parents to work out how to ensure their kids’ success, we won’t be dealing with just bad apples. We’ll be seeing our laudable ideals of merit, fairness, and love for our children steadily turned into excuses for entrenched inequality.

Victor Tan Chen is an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the author of Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy (University of California Press, 2015) and the founding editor of In The Fray magazine.