The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality
In the summer before my son started kindergarten, my mother, suspicious of the Montessori approach I had taken to his preschool education, offered to help him get ready for what she calls “real” school (the kind with desks). I was fairly confident that his transition to kindergarten would go fine, but I nevertheless seized my chance to go on “real” vacation (the kind without small children). Off my children went to spend two weeks with their grandmother, while I spent two weeks on a beach.
My mother used to be a schoolteacher. A speech pathologist by training, she worked in a semi-rural school district in northern Mississippi, where her students often had serious learning disabilities and were always poor. Now that she’s retired, the sunroom in her house in Memphis is decorated with posters scavenged from her old classroom: the ABCs, the US presidents, the world’s continents, the Pledge of Allegiance. When I returned from vacation, my children could proudly recite: “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
On the poster’s laminated surface, my mother had used a purple marker to annotate the text of the Pledge of Allegiance with more child-friendly words. Above Republic, she wrote “country.” Above liberty, she wrote “freedom.” Above justice, she wrote, “being fair.”
“Being fair” works admirably well as a kindergarten-friendly definition of justice. As any parent who has seen siblings squabble over a toy can attest, children have a keen sense of fairness and unfairness. If tasked with dividing up some colorful erasers to reward other children for cleaning their rooms, elementary school children will throw away an extra eraser rather than give one child an unequal share.1
Even monkeys have a sense of fairness. If two capuchin monkeys are “paid” in cucumber slices for performing a simple task, they will both happily pull levers and munch on their cucumber snacks. Start paying just one monkey in grapes, however, and watch the other monkey throw the cucumber back in the experimenter’s face with the indignation of Jesus flipping the tables of the moneychangers.2
As human adults, we share with our children and our primate cousins an evolved psychology that is instinctively outraged by unfairness. Right now, such outrage is bubbling all around us, threatening to boil over at any moment. In 2019, the three richest billionaires in the US possessed more wealth than the poorest 50 percent of the country.3 Like capuchin monkeys being paid in cucumbers when their neighbor is being paid in grapes, many of us look at the inequalities in our society and think: “This is unfair.”
To the Educated Go the Spoils
Life, of course, is unfair—including how long one’s life is. Across many species, from rodents to rabbits to primates, animals who are higher in the pecking order of social hierarchy live longer and healthier lives.4 In the United States, the richest men live, on average, 15 years longer than the poorest, who have life expectancies at age 40 similar to men in Sudan and Pakistan.5 In my lab’s research, we found that children growing up in low-income families and neighborhoods show epigenetic signs of faster biological aging when they are as young as 8 years old.6 It might be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the gates of Heaven, but the rich man has the consolation of being able to forestall judgment day.
These income inequalities are inextricable from inequalities in education. Even before the novel coronavirus pandemic, life spans for White7 Americans without a college degree were actually getting shorter.8 This historically unusual decline in life span, unique among high-income countries, was driven by an epidemic of “deaths of despair,” including overdoses from opioid drugs, complications from alcoholism, and suicides.9 The coronavirus pandemic made things worse. In the US, people with a college education are more likely to have jobs that can be done remotely from home, where they are more protected from exposure to a virus—and more protected from layoffs.10
In addition to living longer and healthier lives, the educated also make more money. In the past forty years, the top 0.1 percent of Americans have seen their incomes increase by more than 400 percent, but men without a college degree haven’t seen any increase in real wages since the 1960s.11The 1960s. Think about how much has changed since then: We have put a man on the moon; we have fought wars in Vietnam and Kuwait and Afghanistan and Iraq and Yemen; we invented the internet and DNA editing; and in all that time, American men who didn’t get past high school haven’t gotten a raise.
When economists talk about the relationship between income and education, they use the term “skills premium,” which is the ratio of wages for “skilled” workers, meaning ones that have a college degree, to “unskilled” workers, meaning ones who don’t. This conception of “skill” leaves out tradespersons, like electricians or plumbers, who can have lengthy and specialized training via apprenticeship rather than college. And anyone who has ever worked an allegedly “unskilled” job like waiting tables will rightly scoff at the idea that such labor doesn’t require skill. Working in food service, for instance, involves supplying emotional energy to other people, displaying feelings in the service of how other people feel.12 The language of “unskilled” vs. “skilled” workers can reflect what the writer Freddie deBoer has called “the cult of the smart”:13 the tendency to fetishize the skills that are cultivated and selected for in formal education as inherently more valuable than all other skills (e.g., manual dexterity, physical strength, emotional attunement).
In the United States, the magnitude of the “skills premium” in wages has been increasing since the 1970s, and as of 2018, workers with a bachelor’s degree earned, on average, 1.7 times the wage of those who had completed only high school.14 People who lack an even more basic marker of “skill”—a high school diploma—fare even worse. This is not a trivial number of people: The high school graduation rate has barely budged since the 1980s, and about 1 in 4 high school students will not receive a diploma.15
The skills premium is about what an individual worker earns in wages. But many people don’t work, and many people don’t live alone. Differences in the composition of households further exacerbate inequality. Now more than ever, college-educated people marry and mate with other college-educated people, concentrating high earnings potential within a single household.16 At the same time, rates of solo parenting and total fertility rates are higher for women with less education.17 In 2016, 59 percent of births to women with only a high school degree were non-marital, compared to 10 percent of births to women with a bachelor’s degree or higher. So, non-college-educated women earn less money, have more mouths to feed, and are less likely to have anyone else in the house to help them pull it off.
These social inequalities leave their mark psychologically. People with lower incomes report feeling more worry, stress, and sadness, and less happiness, than people making more money.18 They are more immiserated by negative events both large (divorce) and small (headache). They even enjoy their weekends less. On the other hand, global life satisfaction—“my life is the best possible life for me”—goes up with income, even among high earners.
Given the myriad ways that people’s lives can end up unequal, philosophers have debated which one is the most important: Some consider equality of monetary resources to be the main thing to worry about. Some consider money simply a means to happiness or well-being. Some refuse to settle on a single currency of justice. Similarly, social scientists tend to study the type of inequality that is the focus of their disciplinary training. For example, economists are particularly likely to study differences in income and wealth, whereas psychologists are more likely to study differences in cognitive abilities and emotions. There is no single best place to start when considering the tangled nest of inequalities between people. But in the US today, whether one is a member of the “haves” or the “have-nots” is increasingly a matter of whether or not one has a college degree. If we can understand why some people go further in school than others do, it will illuminate our understanding of multiple inequalities in people’s lives.
Two Lotteries of Birth
People end up with very different levels of education and wealth and health and happiness and life itself. Are these inequalities fair? In the pandemic summer of 2020, Jeff Bezos added $13 billion to his fortune in a single day,19 while 32 percent of US households were unable to make their housing payment.20 Looking at the juxtaposition, I feel a bubbling disgust; the inequality seems obscene. But opinions differ.
When discussing whether inequalities are fair or unfair, one of the few ideological commitments that Americans broadly claim to share (or at least pay lip service to) is a commitment to the idea of “equality of opportunity.” This phrase can have multiple meanings: What, exactly, counts as real “opportunity,” and what does it take to make sure it’s equalized?21 But, generally, the idea is that all people, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, should have the same opportunities to lead a long and healthy and satisfying life.
Through the lens of “equality of opportunity,” it is not strictly the size or scale of inequalities per se that is evidence that society is unfair. Rather, it is that those inequalities are tied to the social class of a child’s parents, or to other circumstances of birth that are beyond the child’s control. Whether one is born to rich parents or poor ones, to educated or uneducated ones, to married or unmarried ones, whether you go home from the hospital to a clean and cohesive neighborhood or a dirty and chaotic one—these are accidents of birth. A society characterized by equality of opportunity is one in which these accidents of birth do not determine a person’s fate in life.
From the perspective of equality of opportunity, several statistics about American inequality are damning. On the left side of figure 1.1, I’ve illustrated one such statistic: how rates of college completion differ by family income. It’s a familiar story. In 2018, young adults whose families were in the top quarter of the income distribution were nearly four times more likely to have completed college than those whose families were in the bottom quarter of the income distribution: 62 percent of the richest Americans had a bachelor’s degree by age 24, compared with 16 percent of the poorest Americans.
It is important to remember that these data are correlational. We don’t know, from this data alone, why families with more money have children who are more likely to complete college, or whether simply giving people more money would cause their children to go further in school.22
Yet, in public debates and academic papers about inequality, two things are taken for granted about such statistics. First, data on the relationship between the social and environmental conditions of a child’s birth and his or her eventual life outcomes are agreed to be scientifically useful. Researchers who hoped to understand patterns of social inequality in a country, but who had no information about the social circumstances into which people were born, would be incredibly hampered. Lifelong careers are devoted to trying to understand why, exactly, high-income children go further in school, and trying to design policies and interventions to close income gaps in education.23 Second, such statistics are agreed to be morally relevant. For many people, the distinction they make between inequalities that are fair and those that are unfair is that unfair inequalities are those tied to accidents of birth over which a person has no control, like being born into conditions of privilege or penury.
But there is another accident of birth that is also correlated with inequalities in adult outcomes: not the social conditions into which you are born, but the genes with which you are born.
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