Would You Rather Be Born Smart or Rich?

A recent Brookings study suggests that brains and drive have more to do with lifelong success than family wealth. But there's a big catch.

I know, I know, you'd rather be born smart and rich (and charming, and with a lustrous head of hair, and a voice like Michael Bolton's). But if you had to choose? Chances are, your answer depends on whether you think the U.S. economy is a meritocracy—that intelligence and ambition are more important to lifelong success than the circumstances of your birth.

A recent Brookings paper gives reasons for optimism. Over the long term, it finds, smart kids earn more than rich kids. But sadly, there's a big catch. 

The Brookings paper looked at the relationship between brains, motivation, and economic mobility among a group of youth the government began tracking in 1979. Here's the executive summary: If they were bright and driven, poor kids stood a decent chance of becoming upper-middle-class, or better. Of low-income teens who scored in the top third of test-takers on the Armed Forces Qualification Test (on the far left in green), more than 40 percent made it to the top two income quintiles by adulthood. Meanwhile, dimwitted children of affluence generally fell down the economic ladder. Among high-income teens who scored in the bottom third of AFQT takers (on the far right in orange), more than half ended up in the bottom two income quintiles. 


Brains weren't everything, of course. As the researchers put it, "in terms of mobility, it’s better to be smart, motivated, and rich, than smart, motivated, and poor." And, as the authors note, there also seemed to be a "glass floor" that kept a great many wealthy kids with "mediocre skills" from sliding into (relative) poverty. 

Nonetheless, for the teens and young adults of the late 1970s, the economy seems to have been, in at least some meaningful sense, a meritocracy. 

Now about that catch. The unfortunate truth is that, more often than not, the rich kids are the smart kids. For many years now, the single biggest gap in American education has been between the well-to-do and the poor. Thanks to the resources their families can pour into parenting, wealthy students start out academically ahead the day they walk into kindergarden, and stay ahead through their high school graduation day.

How huge is the class divide in our classrooms? The next Brookings graph should give you a sense. It shows how pre-school, middle-school, and high-school-aged children fare on cognitive exams, such as the AFQT, depending on their family income. The trend should be pretty clear at a glance: Richer kids score higher. By their late teens, six out of every ten children from the wealthiest slice of families place among the top third of test takers; six in ten children from the poorest slice of families place among the bottom third. They're mirror images of wealth and acumen.    

This is one key reason why the United States has such a dearth of economic mobility overall, even if our economy is nominally meritocratic. There simply aren't very many poor children with the skills to fight their way to the top. And it's why people like Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke have begun to question the idea that meritocracy is, by its nature, fair. How fair can a system really be, after all, if it's tilted so far in favor of those lucky enough to be born wealthy?

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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