For generations, America has been known as the “Land of Opportunity”— a place where even those born into poverty can achieve success. The opportunity to “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” is a cliché proven by countless Americans in both historical and contemporary examples. But recent economic factors as well as statistics on unemployment beg the question, “Is America still the land of opportunity for all?”
A recent article from The Economist titled, “Choose Your Parents Wisely,” explains that “there is a large class divide on how Americans raise their children.” The article contrasts the way wealthy parents raise their children in a suburb of Washington, D.C., with the parenting of low-income parents raising their children in rural West Virginia. The results of the comparison are quite discouraging for poorer, less-educated parents, and the study argues that “[N]othing the government can do will give the children of Cabin Creek the same life chances as the children of Bethesda.”
The article further explains that “[c]hildren with at least one parent with a graduate degree score roughly 400 points higher (out of 2,400) on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (a test used for college entrance) than children whose parents did not finish high school. This is a huge gap.”
While this article gives education and good parenting much of the credit for an individual’s success in life, Ben Carson, the famous neurosurgeon from Johns Hopkins University reminds us that hard work and discipline can sometimes make a huge difference.
Many great Americans who started out in poverty credit their success to hard work. One such example is Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919). Carnegie immigrated to America from Scotland as a teenager and eventually worked his way up to becoming one of the richest men in America as the owner of the Carnegie Steel Company. Two of his famous quotations concerning success include, “You cannot push anyone up the ladder unless he is willing to climb,” and, “People who are unable to motivate themselves must be content with mediocrity, no matter how impressive their other talents.”
All the parental planning and government programs imaginable cannot compensate if there is a lack of personal determination to succeed. Even incredible talents and abilities are insufficient to achieve success without the motivation to develop them through dedication and hard work. History is rife with examples of those with genius and talent whose accomplishments fell far short of their potential.
Another example of an American who worked his way out of poverty is Booker T. Washington (1856-1915). Washington was born into the most hopeless poverty possible − slavery. However, through his work ethic and determined efforts, he was able to attend Hampton University and eventually became the first leader of Tuskegee Institute. Three of his famous quotations summarize the importance of hard work: “Success is not measured by the position one has reached in life, rather by the obstacles overcome while trying to succeed.” Another is, “Nothing ever comes to one, that is worth having, except as a result of hard work,” and lastly, “Character, not circumstances, make a man.”
Perhaps Andrew Carnegie, Booker T. Washington, and others who overcome difficult circumstances to achieve their goals receive so much attention and praise because we acknowledge that they are exceptional individuals. After all, most people who start out in poverty don’t have such a dramatic turnaround that makes them inspirational figures.
So perhaps the question we should be asking is not, “Is America still a Land of Opportunity?” but rather, “Are those Americans who live in poverty taking full advantage of the opportunities which our country offers?” Obviously, not all citizens have the same opportunities; some Americans face greater obstacles and endure more hardship in their lives. Still, many people − from the poorest citizen to the wealthiest − blame their circumstances instead of taking personal responsibility for their actions. While life is not fair, inequality and unfairness are not excuses for a lack of personal responsibility.
If we separate this argument from its spiritual implications and the importance of personal character, we will fruitlessly try to make sense out of statistics. Yes, we need better education programs. Yes, we need a better health care plan for those in poverty. Yes, we need to reform America’s welfare. But at the core of this problem, we need to instill in American children the value of a diligent work ethic. As Ecclesiastes 9:10 states, “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might.” Perhaps it is time to renew the old emphasis on virtues that Bill Bennett reminded us are necessary for citizens to achieve their best.
Flora Gillis is an intern with Concerned Women for America’s (CWA) Ronald Reagan Memorial Internship Program. To learn more about internships with CWA, click here.