Equal Opportunity?


Heather Johnson finds that even modest wealth opens doors

By Adriana Nordin Manan '07
Photography by Ryan Hulvat

Sociologist Heather Johnson '94 speaks with students at Lehigh University. Johnson's studies have found that Americans' access to education is profoundly influenced by wealth.
America may be the land of opportunity, but is that opportunity equal? Hardly, says sociologist Heather Johnson '94, whose new book shows that even the modest wealth of America's middle class opens doors that remain closed to a large sector of our society.

The American Dream and the Power of Wealth: Choosing Schools and Inheriting Inequality in the Land of Opportunity (Routledge, 2006) explores the role that wealth plays in determining access to education"and how people perceive (or misperceive) this, given America's ideals of equality, fairness, and equal opportunity.

Johnson, assistant professor of sociology at Lehigh University, has illuminated a stark but often overlooked fact: income pays the monthly bills, but wealth pays for big-ticket items like the downpayment on a house or tuition at a private school. And big-ticket advantages"or the lack of them"shape our lives and our society.

The differences are not easily identified, but, according to Johnson, understanding them is essential to any discussion of the widening socioeconomic gap in America.

"While income is usually earned through an occupation of some sort, wealth is the money we own," Johnson said in a recent interview. "From research conducted by sociologists across the country we know that across the financial spectrum most families use income for necessities such as food, housing, and the more day-to-day expenses. On the other hand, large pivotal moments throughout the course of life are being funded by wealth."

American Dream began with Johnson's doctoral dissertation research at Northeastern University. She ultimately interviewed more than 200 white and black families from various socioeconomic backgrounds in cities across the country.

"The families with histories of wealth, even in small amounts, were the most fascinating to me," Johnson said. "Even if they acknowledged the history of wealth in their families as giving them huge advantages in life they would always say that all their accomplishments were individually earned and personally achieved."

This disconnect is to be expected, says John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Sociology and African-American Studies Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, who knew the author when Johnson was a student at Colby.

"One of the problems in this country is that people of privilege do not understand on whose shoulders they stand," Gilkes said. "For the most part, society rewards individual achievement, and none of us made it by ourselves, although society will tell us that."

American society loves stories of upward mobility, she said, but often people whose stories tell of digging their way out of poverty actually had a hand from a relative or friend. "I think if people were more honest about that we would have very different attitudes in our society," Gilkes said. "Wealth does matter, and not just the fantastic wealth of the upper class but the kind of wealth building that has happened for the American middle class since World War II."

While Johnson's study primarily is about wealth, privilege, and socioeconomic class, it inevitably moves into the ways race fits into the equation.

She uses the hypothetical example of two lawyers, one black and from modest circumstances, the other white and middle class. Though they may have similar incomes, the impact of wealth in our society could lead them to have very different lives.

Johnson writes that her research shows that the white lawyer, more likely to be from a middle or upper-middle class background, probably has advantages that are not obvious but are substantial.

He may have substantially less student-loan debt, for example. And while he is reaping the benefits of his income, the black lawyer, more likely to be a first-generation college graduate, may feel compelled to use his income to give back to his family and community.

"This is not a bad thing; it's just that by doing so he is not able to accumulate wealth the way his friend is," Johnson said. And that will affect the next generation in terms of educational opportunities, among other crucial advantages.

Gilkes, who has seen Johnson present at sociology conferences, says her colleague "is really making a difference. One of the biggest topics [in sociology] is the study of the growing inequality in the country and she is in the middle of it."

Johnson points to significant strides being made in our society in terms of issues related to gender, race, and sexual and religious orientation. "But class is still that huge elephant in the living room," she said, "that looming thing that has yet to be dealt with.

"The biggest challenge for us as a society is the ideology of the American Dream. As much as it is the heart and soul of this country and the most wonderful and beautiful thing about it, it is also in a very ironic way a major challenge for us, because until we can recognize that equal opportunity does not exist, we cannot make it exist, and until we can recognize it as a problem, we cannot have a solution. I truly believe that, in the United States, class is the final frontier."
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