by Sharon Kayne
October 24, 2011

A reader’s letter recently published in the Albuquerque Journal, which took aim at the Occupy Wall Street/99% movement, stated that America doesn’t need to “level the playing field” because it’s already level for everybody. This is hardly a new supposition—it’s woven into our national mythology that anyone can “make it” in America if they just work hard enough. But it got me thinking about statistical probability (which is quite a feat considering that math was always my least favorite subject). The letter writer’s point seemed to be that, since the rich are beholden to no one for their own financial success, then the poor have no one to blame but themselves for their own financial failure. But here’s the thing: if the playing field was indeed fair and even, then—statistically—equal rates of people from every socioeconomic level would end up as financial failures. And that’s simply not the case.

I see the “playing field” as a metaphor for life—that is, life as a marathon. If the playing field was level, everyone would begin from the same starting point and would run on the same equally smooth or equally rugged track. Everyone would have to jump the same number of equally high hurdles. You reach the finish line by becoming the best person you can be, as well as an engaged and accepted member of society where you make a positive contribution. In that sense, the finish line isn’t really the end of the race—but a goal to be achieved along the way.

So, all things being equal, the percentage of people who don’t make it to the finish line—the people who stumble and are sidelined by drugs, crime, gang activity, and other problems—would represent the same percentages of the populous that make up the different socioeconomic levels of the country. In other words, if half of the people in this country come from the middle- and upper-classes, then half of the people in jail should also come from the middle- and upper-classes. But the numbers tell a very different story.

A report by Every Child Matters Education Fund shows that the vast majority of people in our prison system come from low-income backgrounds. Similarly, numerous studies have shown a strong link between poverty and low rates of graduation from high school. Of course, people like the Journal letter writer could try and use that information to back up their argument—that people are poor because they make bad choices, like dropping out of high school or getting involved in drugs. But such a conclusion is erroneous in one important way: we’re not dropped on to the playing field fully grown at age 18, when we are old enough to make the decisions that will lead to our financial success or failure. We all begin at the starting line as babies—greatly influenced by an environment that is completely beyond our control.

No matter what you think about poor adults, there is no way you can make the case that children choose to grow up in poverty or that it’s something they brought on themselves. When it comes to your socioeconomic status as a child, none of us has a choice. So if you’re born on a starting line that’s way behind the starting line for babies born to middle class families, chances are that you’ll still be behind when you get to the age where you can take the reins of your financial future. It should come as no surprise, then, that the vast majority of adults who live in poverty also grew up in poverty.

Not only do children who grow up in poverty start behind, they are also very likely to come up against hurdles that will set them back further. This is because one of the most basic foundations for success as adults is laid during early childhood. More than 80 percent of brain development occurs before we reach the age of five. During these years the architecture of the brain is created—it is the frame upon which later learning will be hung. The quality of our later learning—and whether or not we will succeed in school and life—is dependent on the quality of the architecture built in our early years. The quality of life—both good and bad—in our early years will influence the quality of the architecture. If our caregivers are nurturing, responsive, and educated, we’re likely to build good, solid brain architecture. If our caregivers sit us down in front of the TV instead of interacting with us, our brain architecture will not be as robust. If we grow up in an environment where there is chronic, toxic stress, brought on by the economic instability of poverty or the emotional chaos of a whole host of poverty-related problems (drug use, untreated mental illness, the incarceration of parents, etc.), we will build a different kind of brain architecture altogether—the kind that constantly has us on high alert, waiting for the next crisis. This architecture is not conducive to listening to your teacher or following instructions in the classroom.

Regardless of whether you think the playing field is level for adults, only someone in deep denial could conclude that it is level for children. And only the most pessimistic among us could espouse that we will not be far better off as a society if we address this inequality among our most vulnerable citizens. After all, as Frederick Douglass said, it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men. It’s also cheaper and makes for a stronger country and economy.

Sharon Kayne in NM Voices’ Communications Director