Saturday, November 9, 2013

Getting ahead

A 2010 Gallup survey asked "What do you think matters most for getting ahead in life today:
A good education, (or)
Hard work, (or)
Saving and smart spending decisions, (or)
Knowing the right people, (or)
Coming from a wealthy family, (or)
Natural ability, (or)

The survey also asked the usual questions about political party preference and liberal-conservative ideology, plus a question about whether you would call yourself a supporter of the Tea Party, an opponent, or neither.  I combined those three questions into an index of political views:  higher numbers mean more liberal.

The following table shows the number of people who chose the different answers and their average political views.
                     N    Political views
Wealthy family       46     .64*
Natural ability      27     .35
Good education      334     .25*
Other                27     .11    
Luck                 16     .09
Right people         61     .06
Saving & Spending   123    -.20*
Hard work           240    -.41*

The asterisks indicate that we can be confident that the mean is different from zero (that is, that people who choose the answer are more liberal or more conservative than the average).

For me, the most interesting thing is that people who say "good education" are substantially more liberal than those who say "saving and spending decisions" or "hard work."  All of those things are commonly accepted as justifications for inequality, in contrast to coming from a wealthy family, knowing the right people, or luck.  That is, almost everyone regards it as fair that jobs requiring more education should offer higher wages.   So why is there such a big difference between people who think education is most important and people who think hard work or saving and spending decisions are most important?    One possibility is that people don't think that access to education is fairly distributed:  they think that getting a good education depends on family background or where you live.  Another possibility is that they don't think of a good education as entirely your own accomplishment:  after all, schooling is provided by the government.  Unfortunately, this seems to be the only survey that offered a choice between "good education" and "hard work," although a number have given people a choice between some variant of hard work versus family background and connections. So we can't tell if this is something new.

During the last presidential election, Rick Santorum (BA, MBA, JD) once called Barack Obama a "snob" for saying that college education for everyone should be a policy goal.  He was widely criticized for this, but it sounds like he knew his audience.

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