Today's American: How Free? - Equality of opportunity under globalization

Almost since the founding of the republic, equality of opportunity has been recognized as a value that is fundamental to the American idea. From the beginning, Americans believed that their society was in a basic sense different from Europe, where a man's destiny was largely determined by his social class. In the United States, by contrast, a man's success depended on his ability, ingenuity, and character. The phrase "the American Dream" expresses the ideal that everyone, no matter how humble their station, has the potential to attain a degree of middle-class prosperity.

The United States has often observed its commitment to equality of opportunity in the breach. Under slavery and segregation, blacks were denied practically every avenue to prosperity, save for those involved in businesses that catered specifically to the black community. Other nonwhite groups faced similar, if less systematically applied, discrimination. Until relatively recently, women were discouraged from entering the professions and excluded from positions of authority. More generally, in America, as in every other society, the wealthy and increasingly the well educated enjoy advantages that they are able to pass on to their heirs.

Yet despite its failure to live up to its ideals consistently, for many in the world the United States remains the land of opportunity. America is today, as it was a century ago, a land where both freedom and the chance to succeed beckon to those in other nations who suffer poverty, repression, or both. Where previously wave after wave of European immigrants sought a better life, today immigrants from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa do the same. Darker-skinned people were for years denied entry to the United States. The fact that the current immigration flow is overwhelmingly drawn from non-European populations represents a dramatic change in American policy. The proven ability of these new immigrants to hold down jobs, raise families, learn English, and assimilate into American society is an impressive achievement by global standards and a reaffirmation of the idea of America as the land of opportunity.

Furthermore, the era that followed World War II brought the promise of equal opportunity much closer to reality for groups that had historically been excluded from the American Dream. The civil rights revolution ended legal discrimination against native-born blacks, nonwhite immigrants, and women. The explosive growth of higher education enabled the children of working-class families to pursue college degrees for the first time. New laws and policies enhanced the role of merit in decisions on hiring, firing, promotions, and university admissions.

For evidence of America's enhanced commitment to equality of opportunity, one need go no further than the local hospital or courthouse. In both, jobs that were once monopolized by white men are now held by a diverse group of blacks, Latinos, Asians, immigrants (in the case of hospitals), and of course women. Indeed, women are almost as likely to enroll in medical or law school today as are men.

Not only did the United States make significant progress toward equality of opportunity during the civil rights era, it also significantly equalized outcomes, especially among the races. High rates of growth and industrial expansion during the 1950s and 1960s facilitated the entry into the working class of millions of black workers, who found jobs making automobiles, processing steel, or building machine tools.

Since the early 1970s, however, the American economy has experienced something of a transformation. The old industry-based model has been supplanted by a model based on education and technological expertise, along with services. The result has been a growth in opportunity for those with the relevant credentials and abilities, and stagnation or decline for those who lack such skills.

As is always the case during periods of economic change, there have been winners and losers. But the bulk of the evidence suggests that in the current transition the winners are restricted to a small proportion at the top while everyone else is experiencing economic stagnation or decline. Over the past decade, economic gain has been limited to those in the top ten percent while conditions for the vast majority have been flat or declined. Some statistics even suggest that, looked at from the perspective of educational attainment, only those with advanced degrees are moving ahead while those with a college degree or high school education are treading water or losing ground. Some critics further contend that the losers include many workers who have been consigned to the substantial and growing low-wage economy. Others go further, arguing that in recent years equality of opportunity has diminished both as an ideal and as an on-the-ground reality in the United States. Although this criticism comes principally from the left, some conservatives have also acknowledged that the United States has become a more unequal society as a result of such trends as globalization and technological advancement. Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, has gone so far as to assert that the capitalist system is threatened by growing inequality.

The question of whether American workers "need a raise," in the words of John J. Sweeney, president of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), has entered the political debate. During his initial presidential bid in 1992, Bill Clinton campaigned on the theme that most Americans were not sharing in the riches generated by the economic policies of former president Ronald Reagan; Clinton promised a better deal for Americans who "work hard and play by the rules." Similar ideas were touted by Democratic candidates during the congressional campaign of 2006.

In making the case that American workers suffer from growing inequality, the critics cite statistics that place the average earnings for a corporate chief executive officer (CEO) at 475 times that of the average worker, compared with a differential of 40-1 during the 1960s. The disparity is especially glaring when compared with CEO compensation in Japan, where the differential is 11-1, or in Britain, where the differential is 22-1. Others point to the decades-long stagnation in U.S. wages and, some say, the creation of a two-tiered economy in which many jobs are held by illegal immigrants.

Compared with other developed democracies, the United States indeed has a mixed record. There is more absolute poverty in the United States than in the countries of Western Europe. At the same time, the United States has a higher proportion of immigrants from poor countries than does Europe, and has by most accounts done a better job of integrating the new immigrants into the country's social and economic fabric. The United States has a lower minimum wage than do most European countries and differs from Europe in its willingness to tolerate a substantial class of low-wage workers. But the United States has a lower rate of unemployment than do most countries in Europe, some of which have suffered jobless rates of 10 percent or more for many years.

This study examines the condition of freedom in America. Certainly equality of opportunity is essential to freedom, both as a value and as a factor that affects the functioning of a free country. As has been seen in Russia and in some Latin American countries, people lose faith in democracy under conditions of massive poverty, huge gaps between rich and poor, rampant corruption, and economic volatility.

At the same time, in an economically stable liberal democracy, the degree of freedom does not neatly correlate with the gains and losses in the stock market, the unemployment rate, the rate of inflation, interest rates, or other broad indicators of economic performance. Is it a violation of Americans' rights and freedoms that Wal-Mart pays many of its workers less than $10 an hour without medical insurance? Some would argue that the Wal-Mart phenomenon, whereby large, powerful corporations maintain their competitive advantage through the exploitation of low-wage workers, does represent an abuse of power and a violation of rights. Others would maintain that Wal-Mart's labor policies are a function of market forces and are less a violation of rights – since they do not reflect national economic policy – than France's rigid labor code, which contributes to a high unemployment rate and erects barriers to the career prospects of hundreds of thousands of young people.

However, other economic issues bear more directly on the freedoms enjoyed by individual Americans. One such issue is the right of workers to enjoy trade-union representation. In the United States, the great movement of the working class into middle-class status coincided with the period of trade unionism's greatest success. Conversely, the period of wage stagnation and the spread of low-wage jobs that began in the 1970s took place during a period of decline in union membership and influence that is unprecedented in the modern era among developed democracies. Some of organized labor's decline is clearly due to broad economic trends such as globalization, intensified trade, the integration of China into the global market, and technological change. High-visibility corruption has also damaged trade unionism's image. But the decrease in union membership in the private sector can also be attributed to an increasingly hostile political and legal environment, combined with the American business community's traditional antiunion animus.

A second issue is discrimination. This subject is dealt with at some length in the chapters on race relations and immigration. This chapter will assess how government policies and the actions of private institutions have affected the status of women in education and in the economic arena.

Unions Under Duress

More than in any other developed democracy, the history of organized labor in America has been marked by violence, unrest, and intense efforts by management to thwart union objectives. That unions in the United States have encountered such stubborn resistance may seem odd given that, unlike those in Europe, American unions have historically accepted capitalism and eschewed the goal of refashioning the economic system along socialist lines. Samuel Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor, scorned political radicals and refused to tie labor to a political party. For years, his successors maintained a tradition of political bipartisanship, although recently labor has opted for a more organic relationship with the Democratic Party.

Unions' often violent struggles to organize the steel and automobile industries during the 1930s established them as a major force in economic life. After World War II, labor's rolls rose steadily as the American industrial sector grew, until by the mid-1950s some 35 percent of the labor force was unionized, with labor's strength overwhelmingly centered in the private sector. Yet even at the pinnacle of its strength, labor confronted opposition within the business community and among elements of the political leadership that union movements in Western Europe did not have to face. From the standpoint of labor's future ability to organize workers on a truly nationwide basis, the most important consequence was the series of so-called right-to-work laws that were adopted after the 1947 passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which was meant to curb what its supporters claimed was excessive union power. Among other provisions, Taft-Hartley gave states the authority to pass right-to-work laws. Under these statutes, unions are forbidden to make union membership or payment of union dues a condition of employment, either before or after a worker is hired. Right-to-work laws were quickly enacted by nearly all of the Southern states; today, 22 states have some form of right-to-work provision in their labor codes.1

The principal effect of right-to-work laws has been to restrict labor's growth in the South and the Sun Belt region. During the 1950s and 1960s, unions enjoyed saturation strength in key industries in the Northeast, Midwest, and some Western states, but they remained weak in the South. The impact of Taft-Hartley was less significant during the 1950s due to the South's economic backwardness. However, the law's influence became more problematic as industries began to migrate to the region, in part due to the South's antiunion environment and comparatively low labor costs.

By the mid-1970s, union membership had declined to 25 percent of the workforce. The reasons were complex, and included the gradual shift of the American economy from one based on industrial production to one based on services and knowledge. Even more important were advances in technology that rendered some jobs – and in a few cases entire occupations – obsolete. Trade was also a factor; whereas America had been the world's export giant, it now began to import large quantities of goods from Japan and other economies that paid their workers less than in the United States.2

In addition to these broad economic trends, unions were confronted with mounting resistance from employers. To a substantial degree, unions suffered from the transformation of the American economy from one based in internal markets to one based on globalized competition. Unions have historically fared poorly under conditions of a competitive economy, where labor costs figure prominently in a corporation's ability to achieve profitability.

Management used a variety of tactics to forestall unionization, including the intimidation of union activists. Often, corporations were willing to violate labor law if it would result in the defeat of a unionization campaign. One specific problem was the stalling tactics management resorted to when confronted with a representation vote that was likely to favor the union. Another problem was the inability of union activists to obtain timely justice for acts of reprisal by management; it took on average two years for a worker to win reinstatement after a finding of illegal dismissal for union activity. Furthermore, when found guilty by the courts or the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), companies were compelled to do nothing more than provide back pay, a slap-on-the-wrist penalty that failed to discourage management from summarily firing union supporters.

To rectify the situation, labor in the late 1970s pressed for the adoption of a bill that was meant to correct what union leaders felt was an imbalance in labor-management relations. The bill would have expanded the NLRB in order to expedite hearings on cases of alleged violations, permitted two board members instead of the full board to adjudicate routine cases, and established strict time limits for a recognition vote once a union had gathered enough authorization cards from the workers. Although the bill won majority support in both the House and Senate, a filibuster backed by Republicans and Southern Democrats succeeded in killing the bill in the Senate by two votes.3

Labor's membership decline accelerated during the administration of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Much of the decline was due to "deindustrialization," whereby steel mills, automobile factories, and other industrial facilities were shut down or significantly reduced in size, devastating once-thriving communities and creating what came to be referred to as the Rust Belt. To this relentless force of an evolving market economy was added a generally unfriendly political environment. Whereas previous Republican administrations had maintained cordial relations with organized labor, the Reagan administration adopted policies that were often antithetical to labor's interests. Especially important were its appointments to the NLRB. The Reagan administration's appointees tended to support management's positions on labor-relations issues and were determined to move the board in a pro-employer direction. Once these appointees were in place, the board began issuing decisions that reversed earlier judgments supporting the rights of unions and unionized workers. In case after case, the NLRB gave management more latitude to abrogate union contracts, dismiss workers, and discipline union activists.

The political changes spurred corporations to take a tougher line in negotiations with existing unions and to resist further unionization even more forcefully. This resulted in an increase in the number of union activists fired during organizing campaigns, an increased use of fear tactics to discourage unionization efforts, and an increased resort to stalling tactics to thwart agreement on contracts. Another new wrinkle in labor-management relations was the replacement of striking workers by nonunion workers on a permanent basis. Striker replacement, though legal, had seldom been seen in the postwar era. Its reappearance had the effect of nullifying the strike as a significant weapon in labor relations.

The willingness of corporations to fire striking workers, including some corporations with histories of friendly relations with unions, had a powerful effect on organizing and collective bargaining. Even though only a relatively small number of companies took this extreme step, the threat that other businesses might follow suit discouraged workers from striking. The impact of the corporate world's antiunion tactics can be observed in Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, which indicated that among companies with over 1,000 workers, the average annual number of strikes during the 1980s was 80 (only 45 in 1990). By contrast, in the previous three decades, the lowest number of strikes in one year was 181, in 1963; the highest, 437, came in 1953.4

The loss of the strike as an instrument in labor-management relations, changes in the political atmosphere, employers' resistance to unions, a shift in attitude at the NLRB – all of these factors contributed to a steady weakening of labor's ability to represent workers effectively in the private sector. In 2006, only 12 percent of American workers were represented by unions, a remarkably low figure for a developed democracy. An even more telling statistic is the unionization figure for the private sector: 7.4 percent (by contrast, 36.2 percent of public employees were unionized). Furthermore, the trajectory has continued downward even as unions have adopted a number of new organizing strategies and campaigns and have greatly increased the resources devoted to organizing workers in areas where unionization rates have historically been low.5

American union representation is well below that of practically every other developed democracy. In Canada, the proportion of union representation is close to 30 percent; for Germany, it is 22 percent; for the European Union as a whole, it is a little over 26 percent. But it should be noted that in almost every developed country, union membership has decreased over roughly the same period as America's trade-union decline, sometimes by greater margins than in the United States. Between 1970 and 2003, union membership as a percentage of the workforce dropped by 11.1 percentage points in the United States. The decline in Australia over a similar period was 27.3; for Japan, 15.4; for Germany, 9.5; for France, 11.4; for Great Britain, 15.5; and for the European Union as a whole, 11.5 percentage points, about the same as America's.6

Yet even within the context of a global decline in union strength, the American situation is unique. Although the governments of some developed countries – Great Britain and Australia, for example – have adopted policies to curb union strength, none of the established democracies has gone as far as the United States in tolerating employer practices that discourage union membership.

Advocates of workers' rights have multiple complaints about the current state of labor policies, labor law, and the institutions that adjudicate labor issues. Among the more significant issues are the following:

  • While the National Labor Relations Act enshrines the rights of workers to form unions and engage in collective bargaining as a basic principle, those rights are frequently denied because of weak enforcement by the Department of Labor, the courts, and the NLRB.
  • Union supporters at many companies are subject to discrimination, harassment, and dismissal. While dismissal for union advocacy is illegal under U.S. law, many companies ignore the law due to the weak penalties for violations of worker rights, which are usually limited to reinstatement and back pay.
  • There is a lack of balance in a union's ability to present its case to workers. At many corporations, antiunion arguments are presented to workers from the day they are hired, including at captive-audience meetings and in frequent one-on-one discussions with supervisors about the problems of union representation.
  • Employers warn of plant closure should unionization occur. According to labor law, it is illegal for management to threaten to close a facility if the employees opt for union representation. Increasingly, management representatives have been "predicting" that closure was possible or likely under union conditions, a practice which, union advocates contend, has had a powerful impact on workers' willingness to organize.
  • There are lengthy delays in the judicial system and at the NLRB. Union advocates complain that cases of unfair labor practices are often stuck in litigation for years, denying justice to workers who have been unfairly penalized and discouraging workers from pursuing union representation.
  • Management often bargains in bad faith. Unions frequently encounter situations where collective bargaining for a contract takes place, but management goes through the motions without any intention of reaching a contract.
  • The number of workers eligible for union representation has declined. Under U.S. law, supervisors are exempted from normal labor-law coverage. In recent years, the courts and the NLRB have issued decisions that have continually expanded the roster of workers lumped under the supervisory category, thus rendering them ineligible for union protection and other benefits.7

Like much else today, the debate over union decline has become increasingly polarized. Employers and their political allies contend that union decline has little to do with government policy and much to do with shifts in the economy, technological advances, changes in the workforce that favor part-time workers and the self-employed, union corruption, and worker contentment with job conditions. Attitudinal surveys have generally found that Americans favor most of the benefits and protections that come with union representation while at the same time harboring mixed or negative feelings about unions themselves.

Another problem facing unions stems from an increase in the role of government in the economy. Many workplace issues that might be dealt with by unions are increasingly the responsibility of the federal government, including job safety, discrimination, and sexual harassment. A further problem for labor is that in an era of global competition, the ability of unions to offer substantially higher rates of pay at levels that would protect members from inflation has dwindled, especially in the private sector.

It is unclear whether the legal environment will change. Over the past four decades, attempts to bolster the ability of unions to organize workers and negotiate contracts have regularly failed. The most recent attempt to reform labor law is the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, now pending in Congress. Under the bill, once a union gets a majority of workers at a given facility to sign a card expressing the desire for a union, that union is automatically certified as the bargaining representative of all the workers at the facility. The bill has many critics, including some who generally support union objectives, due to its bias against elections as the principal vehicle for union recognition. If adopted, the bill would represent a major change in labor-management relations, since unions have traditionally gained bargaining-representative status only through secret-ballot votes by the workers involved. The measure has been endorsed by the Democratic Party leadership and might be able to gain a majority in Congress. It would, however, face a certain veto by President George W. Bush, and its prospects for adoption under a future Democratic president are questionable at best.8

Revolution in Women's Status

The role and status of women in the United States have undergone a major transformation in the past four decades. Testifying to their progress is the fact that three women – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, senator and presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi – rank among the most influential public figures in the United States. Women, in fact, hold influential positions throughout the political field: in the administration, in the party leaderships, and in the constellation of trade associations, lobbying firms, think tanks, and nongovernmental organizations that play a crucial role in American government. In Congress, the number of women has grown steadily over the past three decades. After the 2006 midterm elections, there were 61 women in the House of Representatives and 13 in the Senate, both record numbers.

The legal foundation for the equality of women was enshrined in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a measure that applied to both women and minority groups. Especially important was Title VII, which barred discrimination in the workplace and set in motion a movement of women into jobs from which they had traditionally been excluded or in which they had been significantly underrepresented. Another important measure was the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which made it illegal to pay men and women at different rates for jobs requiring equal skill, effort, and responsibility.

Although initially there was considerable resistance to the "women's liberation" agenda, a good deal of that agenda has been achieved. In particular, numerous occupations that were overwhelmingly or even totally the province of men now include a strong contingent of women. For example, there are currently more than 215,000 women in the military, compared with 1.2 million men as of 2003. Sixteen percent of 1991 Persian Gulf War veterans were women, compared with 5 percent in World War II, and women are substantially represented in the officer ranks.9 In sports, 2.9 million girls participated in high school athletics in the 2002-03 school year, compared with 800,000 girls 30 years earlier.10 Women are more likely than men to have graduated from college (88 percent versus 85 percent), and more likely to have a college degree in the crucial age bracket between 25 and 29 (31 percent versus 26 percent).11

In the professions, too, the numbers show a remarkable transformation. In 1970, only 7.6 percent of physicians were women. By 2004 that figure had risen to over 26 percent.12 Moreover, statistics for enrollment in medical colleges suggest that the percentage of women in medicine is destined to grow substantially. For the 1969-70 school year, just 9 percent of medical school enrollees were women; for the academic year 2002-03, women's enrollment was over 46 percent, and for the year 2004-05, it was 48.6 percent, near parity with men.13 Similar trajectories obtain for law school enrollment. Women comprised 11.1 percent of law school students in the academic year 1972-73. For the academic year 2005-06, that figure had risen to 47.5 percent, again near parity.14 The increase in business school enrollment has also been dramatic. In the class of 1965 at Harvard Business School, a mere 2 percent of enrollees were female; in 2007, that figure was 38 percent.15

Despite the huge increase in women in high-paying professions, women still lag behind men in average income. The most recent figures suggest that for 2004, the median earnings for women were 80 percent of those for men. This ratio varied significantly between demographic groups: for blacks it was 89 percent; for Latinos, 87 percent; for whites, 80 percent; and for Asians, 76 percent. Yet in 1979, women earned just 63 percent of what men earned. Significantly, for the youngest age cohort, 16 to 24 years old, women earned 94 percent of the median male earnings. By contrast, for those aged 35 and older, women earned 75 percent of their male counterparts' pay.

The reasons for the gap between men's and women's wages are the subject of considerable debate. Many researchers hold that women are more likely to drop out of the workforce for lengthy periods in order to care for children.16 According to the Labor Department, the number of women who have chosen to stay at home has risen recently, and the increase has been especially sharp among highly educated mothers who might otherwise be earning high salaries. This could account for a recent stagnation in the earnings gap for college graduates. Others, however, point to the "feminization of poverty," a phenomenon driven by the increase in female-headed households. In 2000, about 11 percent of American families lived in poverty, but 28 percent of female-headed families did so. Most of these women were divorced or never married. Many have little education or job skills, and thus qualify only for poorly paid positions in the service sector.

In the 1980s, some women's rights organizations sought to rectify what they claimed were continued inequities in the workplace through a policy known as comparable worth. According to civil rights law, American workers regardless of race or sex were to be given equal pay for equal work, whether they were receptionists, cab drivers, or electricians. But according to some feminist theorists, the doctrine of equal pay for equal work was insufficient. They asserted that jobs traditionally held by women were devalued precisely because they were women's occupations. To rectify this state of affairs, they promoted a new doctrine. Instead of equal pay for equal work, the law should require equal pay for jobs of comparable worth.

Comparable worth or, as it was sometimes called, pay equity, sought to rearrange wage scales not simply for workers doing jobs that were relatively similar, such as a subway motorman and a long-haul trucker, but also for jobs that were highly dissimilar – a truck driver and a registered nurse, for example. Pay equity called for sweeping job evaluations to determine whether certain positions were undervalued because they were predominantly filled by women, and whether some jobs were overvalued because they were predominantly held by men. Comparable-worth plans encountered considerable resistance in the court system, and their impact has thus far been largely restricted to the public sector.

Women's rights advocates have been more successful in persuading the government and the courts to take steps against sexual harassment in the workplace and in education. A series of court decisions have held both individuals and corporations responsible for acts of sexual harassment, patterns of harassment, or a work environment that is deemed hostile to women. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination on the basis of sex in the workplace, is the key federal law cited in harassment cases. Another important statute is the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which added provisions to Title VII that expanded the rights of women to sue and collect punitive damages in harassment cases. In 1980, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had issued regulations defining sexual harassment and stating that it was a form of discrimination outlawed by the Civil Rights Act.

The federal judiciary has been equally important in curtailing sexual harassment. In case after case, the courts, including the Supreme Court, have defined sexual harassment; set standards for employer liability; established whether speech, as opposed to conduct, can create a hostile environment; allowed psychological effects to be included in the assessment of damages; set standards for assessing same-sex harassment; and set standards for giving harassment suits class-action status. Approximately 15,000 sexual harassment cases are brought before the EEOC each year.

Access to Education

The American economy has evolved into one in which good jobs require knowledge and specialized skills, elevating the role of education as an instrument of social mobility. In the past, many new immigrants and working-class households were able to attain middle-class status through well-paid union jobs in industry and construction, or in certain skilled trades. The dwindling of the blue-collar option has put particular pressure on segments of the population that may have relied on it for generations, whether out of tradition or due to past bias that excluded them from higher education.

Critics like William Julius Wilson have pointed to the decline of the blue-collar sector as the principal reason for the failure of African Americans to make more substantial strides toward economic equality. Others have pointed to the danger of an emerging two-tiered economy, in which the well educated and their children attain interesting careers and prosperity, while those without higher education and very often their children are relegated to a low-wage, dead-end fate.

The principal flaw in this argument is that it ignores the multilayered university system that has evolved in the United States and offers diverse opportunities to obtain a higher education. There are literally thousands of colleges in America, including two-year community colleges, state colleges and universities, religion-based private institutions, and prestigious Ivy League schools.

However, four-year colleges offer advantages over two-year colleges, and most students do not attend four-year institutions. Of the roughly four million young people who were of age to enter college in 2002, only 35 percent actually entered a four-year college. Furthermore, minorities were much less likely than whites to enroll in college when they reached the normal age of high school graduation. The relevant figures were 37 percent for whites, 26 percent for blacks, and 15 percent for Latinos.

It is widely believed that a lack of money is a major impediment to access to higher education for the poor, and especially for low-income minority students. Certainly it is true that college is expensive. In 2003, the average tuition, room, and board in public colleges cost $10,700 a year; the average was over $25,000 for private colleges. However, financial aid is readily available for deserving students. In the same year, 76 percent of students in four-year colleges and 89 percent in private colleges received some assistance. Most of this aid – 59 percent in public universities and 82 percent in private institutions – took the form of outright grants.

The bigger obstacle to college enrollment is not money, but preparation. Richard D. Kahlenberg, a scholar of American education at the Century Foundation, asserts that "there's almost no gap between college ready high school graduates and the number of students starting college. Virtually everyone who is academically qualified to go to college actually goes to college." However, not everyone is qualified. Studies have shown that some two-thirds of college-age Americans either do not graduate from high school or do graduate but lack the basic academic prerequisites for college admission.17 Because the primary cause of the racial gap in college enrollment is that students are graduating from high school without being academically prepared for college, the problem is not likely to be solved until reforms are made in primary and secondary education.


Globalization has widened the gulf between those with skills and education and the traditional working class, not only in America but around the world. The gap between the rich and poor has expanded, sometimes by substantial amounts, in Russia, China, and India, as well as throughout Latin America. The same process has occurred even in Europe.

Economic globalization has also contributed to the decline of the traditional institution of working-class solidarity and power, the trade union. While the erosion of labor's ability to organize and represent workers has proceeded further in the United States than in many other countries, trade-union decline has occurred worldwide, including in countries where the political and legal environment is friendlier than in America.

What has distinguished the United States from most other societies is that inequality, as measured in the narrowest terms of income and wealth, barely figures in the American political debate. To be sure, Americans have responded politically to fears over economic insecurity during times of mass layoffs by major corporations, and have expressed a desire for a more robust level of social welfare benefits. But the reports of huge salaries for CEOs or the excessive lifestyles of entertainers and professional athletes, not to mention the mundane statistics that demonstrate the increased level of inequality, have had surprisingly little resonance among ordinary Americans. This, however, may be changing. Opinion surveys show a major increase in the proportion of Americans who are concerned about rising inequality and who believe that they are among the society's "have-nots." According to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, in 2007 fully 48 percent of Americans believe the country is divided into "haves" and "have-nots," compared to 26 percent in 1988. During that same period the percentage of Americans who identified themselves as part of the have-nots doubled from 17 to 34 percent.

At the same time, the United States in many important ways remains committed to equal opportunity in employment and education. The pillars of the country's antidiscrimination regime are detailed here and in other chapters in this study. The progress that women have made, especially in education and the economy, stands as powerful evidence of the seriousness of the American commitment. It also reminds us of the importance of the openness of American society to new ideas, demands, and causes. Without freedom of association, freedom of expression, and the freedom to advocate for a political agenda, gains for women would not have been possible. Likewise, the integration of immigrant groups, especially those of non-European origin, testifies to the ability of American society to judge people by their characters and achievements rather than by religion or skin color. The high-profile representation of Asians and Latinos in the upper echelons of the Bush administration reflects a broader reality within the corporate world, in small business, and in the nonprofit sector. In no other society would one find as many women, minorities, or children of immigrants in high positions of power and authority as in the United States.

And while the United States has taken little direct action to ameliorate the negative effects of economic change, it must be credited with having established a system of higher education that offers an efficient route to success for both elites and ordinary citizens in an era in which knowledge often determines destiny. The Unites States boasts a system of colleges and universities that offers education to students with a broad range of abilities, interests, and income levels.

At the same time, the decline of organized labor represents a decline in workers' right to associate and a serious blemish on American democracy. Labor's critics argue that workers today are simply not interested in unions and are content with their conditions of employment. The fact that trade-union membership in the private sector in Canada is four times that of the United States casts doubt on this contention. More to the point, it is impossible to know whether American workers would opt for union representation in substantial numbers as long as the playing field is tilted against organized labor.

1 National Right to Work Foundation website,

2 Helen Dewar, "Labor Plight in '78; Ambitious Program Is Proving Elusive," Washington Post, September 4, 1978.

3 Philip Shabecoff, "Business Interests Unite To Fight Over Labor Laws," New York Times, June 24, 1977.

4 Peter T. Kilborn, "Ban on Replacing Strikers Faces Veto Threat," New York Times, March 7, 1991.

5 Steven Greenhouse, "Sharp Decline in Union Members in '06," New York Times, January 26, 2007.

6 Jelle Visser, "Union Membership Statistics in 24 Countries," Monthly Labor Review, January 2006.

7 Human Rights Watch, "Unfair Advantage: Workers' Freedom of Association in the United States Under International Human Rights Standards," August 2000, 17-32.

8 Bryan O'Keefe and Whitney Blake, "Rebound of Labor?" New York Sun, February 9, 2007.

9 U.S. Census Bureau, "Women's History Month," news release, March 2006.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 American Medical Association, Physician Characteristics and Distribution in the U.S. (American Medical Association Press, 2006).

13 Ibid.

14 American Bar Association, "First Year and Total J.D. Enrollment by Gender, 1947-2005,"

15 Harvard Business School, "Statistics: MBA Program,"

16 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Highlights of Women's Earnings in 2004,"

17 Greg Forster, "The Embarrassing Good News About College Access," Chronicle of Higher Education, March 10, 2006.

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