Technology: Killer or Savior Of The American Dream?

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Christopher Burns

Is technology killing the American Dream – or will it help us save it?

The American Dream is fading. Extensive research points to increasing social inequality and grossly declining rates of social mobility.

Technology has been cast as the antagonist to this, the primary killer of the American Dream and perpetuator of social inequality. However, technology itself is neutral; the effects of technology are an embodiment of the humans who create it, manifesting their intentions through their design and implementation of technology’s power. Technologies like artificial intelligence have as much potential to create social mobility as they do to further the inequalities facing underprivileged and disenfranchised communities. The directional power of technology is really all in its design.

In reality, the perpetuation of inequality does not stem from AI, but from unchecked elitism preventing mobility into the jobs of the future – something that AI can actually help solve.

Elitism is one of the few (if not the only remaining) “isms” that is actually celebrated today. I have overheard recruiting and business leaders at prestigious companies say that they have no need to expand their efforts beyond elite schools because they are already inundated by these “elite” candidates. A head of diversity recruiting once told me in economic terms what she would be willing to spend on recruiting a “non-elite” student: $5,000 dollars of her recruiting budget compared to the $50,00-100,000 she typically spends recruiting “elite” students. It seemed strangely un-empathetic for someone who was charged with improving all types of diversity. Unfortunately, she is not unique in her point of view.

Now, if elite schools were true meritocracies, then maybe we could justify this attitude. If they really did accept people regardless of their race, gender and socioeconomic background, then we might find this attitude understandable. However, while these institutions have made great strides in terms of gender and ethnic equality, they have largely ignored socioeconomic inequality. As Obama famously said, his children face better odds getting into an elite school than a working-class white person’s children.

Looking at Harvard students born between 1981 and 1991, 70% of students came from the top 20% of income distribution, versus 3.5% from the bottom 20%. Another way to look at it: students from the top 10% of the population outnumbered those from the bottom 90% and as many students came from the infamous 1% as did the bottom 60% (Raj Chetty, Stanford). This was true of 38 schools in the US, including Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, Penn and Brown.

Additionally, holding academic ability constant, whites from upper middle class backgrounds were 3 times more likely to be admitted to elite colleges than those from low income backgrounds (Espenshade and Radford, Princeton). Eighty-six percent of African Americans at elite colleges come from middle or upper class backgrounds (Bowen and Bok).  And while many factors increased your odds of acceptance at an Ivy league school — being an athlete (28%) or a legacy (20%) for starters — being from the bottom income quartile did not (Bowen, 2005).

This begs the question: if you grow up in a poor or working class family, and you have similar grades and standardized test scores as someone who was born into affluence, shouldn’t that advantage you at least as much as being an athlete or legacy?

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Christopher Burns

Is technology killing the American Dream – or will it help us save it?

The American Dream is fading. Extensive research points to increasing social inequality and grossly declining rates of social mobility.

Technology has been cast as the antagonist to this, the primary killer of the American Dream and perpetuator of social inequality. However, technology itself is neutral; the effects of technology are an embodiment of the humans who create it, manifesting their intentions through their design and implementation of technology’s power. Technologies like artificial intelligence have as much potential to create social mobility as they do to further the inequalities facing underprivileged and disenfranchised communities. The directional power of technology is really all in its design.

In reality, the perpetuation of inequality does not stem from AI, but from unchecked elitism preventing mobility into the jobs of the future – something that AI can actually help solve.

Elitism is one of the few (if not the only remaining) “isms” that is actually celebrated today. I have overheard recruiting and business leaders at prestigious companies say that they have no need to expand their efforts beyond elite schools because they are already inundated by these “elite” candidates. A head of diversity recruiting once told me in economic terms what she would be willing to spend on recruiting a “non-elite” student: $5,000 dollars of her recruiting budget compared to the $50,00-100,000 she typically spends recruiting “elite” students. It seemed strangely un-empathetic for someone who was charged with improving all types of diversity. Unfortunately, she is not unique in her point of view.

Now, if elite schools were true meritocracies, then maybe we could justify this attitude. If they really did accept people regardless of their race, gender and socioeconomic background, then we might find this attitude understandable. However, while these institutions have made great strides in terms of gender and ethnic equality, they have largely ignored socioeconomic inequality. As Obama famously said, his children face better odds getting into an elite school than a working-class white person’s children.

Looking at Harvard students born between 1981 and 1991, 70% of students came from the top 20% of income distribution, versus 3.5% from the bottom 20%. Another way to look at it: students from the top 10% of the population outnumbered those from the bottom 90% and as many students came from the infamous 1% as did the bottom 60% (Raj Chetty, Stanford). This was true of 38 schools in the US, including Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, Penn and Brown.

Additionally, holding academic ability constant, whites from upper middle class backgrounds were 3 times more likely to be admitted to elite colleges than those from low income backgrounds (Espenshade and Radford, Princeton). Eighty-six percent of African Americans at elite colleges come from middle or upper class backgrounds (Bowen and Bok).  And while many factors increased your odds of acceptance at an Ivy league school — being an athlete (28%) or a legacy (20%) for starters — being from the bottom income quartile did not (Bowen, 2005).

This begs the question: if you grow up in a poor or working class family, and you have similar grades and standardized test scores as someone who was born into affluence, shouldn’t that advantage you at least as much as being an athlete or legacy?

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