The importance of head starts and why


My good friend from Alberta sent me a link to a website. It showcased a guy we knew years ago. He’d been born with a bit of a silver spoon in his mouth, and he’d done well, now living in Paris and making a career for himself as an artist (which I admit is not such an easy thing to do).

My friend, on the other hand, wasn’t born with the proverbial silver spoon, but she’s done OK. She made the best of her talent, earned a Ph.D. and carved out a nice life for herself. Sure, she had some head-start advantages (her mom was a teacher) but she worked hard and moved herself up the ladder.

Closer to home, I know a few kids who don’t have any kind of a head start at all. These kids are on the negative side of the balance sheet: they started out in poverty, were raised in broken homes by relatives instead of parents, kept failing at school before finally dropping out, falling into substance abuse, violence, petty crime, teen pregnancies and all the rest. As an added bonus, our system seems only too eager to punish these already lost kids.

So, the obvious question is: how do we equalize things to give the kids at the bottom more of a head start—or at least level the playing field?

Well, the real life answer is we likely won’t. Our economic system has been re-jigged since the 1980s to increase the advantages of those at the top, not at the bottom. And the stats show it. The wealthiest .01 percent of society has been getting increasingly wealthy as the less prosperous bottom 50 percent is getting relatively poorer.

For those of us who grew up before the 1980s, the accident of birth didn’t pose the problem it does to today’s kids. We grew up in a rapidly growing economy. There were always better jobs just around the corner. But not today. The expectation of doing better than one’s parents is no longer the norm. Increasingly, your kids will be lucky to remain at the level into which they were born.

What’s changed? Well, governments became more corporate-friendly as the world’s economy globalized. They lowered taxes, deregulated legal constraints and gave tax breaks and incentives to corporations to keep them from relocating elsewhere. It was a political reaction to a particularly insidious kind of corporate blackmail—resulting in the creation of a corporate welfare state. The recent bailout of the financial industry in the U.S. after the housing bubble collapsed (rather than bailing out the victimized homeowners) is simply another blatant example of how the system is squarely aimed at saving (and enriching) those at the top first.

How is this different from the past? Well, once upon a time a long ago, corporations took a similar path. They formed monopolies (like Rockefeller’s Standard Oil), manipulated the markets, rigged the system, paid off politicians and generally took the public on a wildly unregulated investment ride—until the wheels came off and the whole top-heavy finance machine crashed in 1929. During the ensuing Great Depression, governments took up the slack, created public works projects to put people back to work, re-regulated business, increased tax levels on the wealthy, broke up the monopolies and created the modern social services safety net, which, by the 1960s had been universally adopted by most of the world’s leading industrial societies. And then mass amnesia began setting in. Slowly and surely, the wealthy began their assault on the elegantly re-engineered public social welfare system.

Of course, as always, it’s all about money. But what is money? Money in our economic system is like oxygen in the water. It always bubbles to the top. And all of life in the ocean requires oxygen. So what happens to life at the bottom if all the oxygen is driven to the top? It dies, of course.

So if follows that the main purpose of government is to protect all of its citizens, especially those of us who, through no fault of our own, are nearer the bottom. Therefore, one of the key duties of a fully functioning government is to reoxygenate the water—to collect some of the money that has risen to the top and push it back down to the people at the bottom.

This is done by increasing taxes on the very affluent, including the imposition of death taxes on wealthy estates, and penalizing individuals and corporations that shelter their wealth offshore. It also includes raising taxes on large corporations and ensuring rights and protection for workers, including the right to unionize, collectively bargain and strike.

And how would we redistribute that money to level the field for our kids? Well, we might establish a guaranteed annual income for their parents, which is not as far-fetched as it might seem. We might seriously reassess how we deliver education to low-income kids, and while we’re at it, extend free public education to the post-secondary diploma-degree level as soon as possible.

How we offset early disadvantages merits our concern. After all, if we won’t reinvest in our people equitably, what does it say about us as a society?


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