Economics » Poverty and Economic Inequality » Government Policies to Reduce Income Inequality

The Ladder of Opportunity

The Ladder of Opportunity

Economic inequality is perhaps most troubling when it is not the result of effort or talent, but instead is determined by the circumstances under which a child grows up. One child attends a well-run grade school and high school and heads on to university, while parents help out by supporting education and other interests, paying for university, a first car, and a first house, and offering work connections that lead to internships and jobs. Another child attends a poorly run grade school, barely makes it through a low-quality high school, does not go to university, and lacks family and peer support. These two children may be similar in their underlying talents and in the effort they put forth, but their economic outcomes are likely to be quite different.

Public policy can attempt to build a ladder of opportunities so that, even though all children will never come from identical families and attend identical schools, each child has a reasonable opportunity to attain an economic niche in society based on their interests, desires, talents, and efforts. Some of those initiatives include those shown in this table.

Public Policy Initiatives

ChildrenUniversity LevelAdults
• Improved day care• Widespread loans and grants for those in financial need• Opportunities for retraining and acquiring new skills
• Enrichment programs for preschoolers• Public support for a range of institutions from two-year community universitys to large research universities• Prohibiting discrimination in job markets and housing on the basis of race, gender, age, and disability
• Improved public schools
• After school and community activities
• Internships and apprenticeships

The United States has often been called a land of opportunity. Although the general idea of a ladder of opportunity for all citizens continues to exert a powerful attraction, specifics are often quite controversial. Society can experiment with a wide variety of proposals for building a ladder of opportunity, especially for those who otherwise seem likely to start their lives in a disadvantaged position. Such policy experiments need to be carried out in a spirit of open-mindedness, because some will succeed while others will not show positive results or will cost too much to enact on a widespread basis.

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