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Wealth and the American Dream

Heather Johnson considers race, class, and wealth issues to be this country's most pressing social conerns.

With the publication of her first book, Heather Johnson, assistant professor of sociology and director of graduate studies for Lehigh's sociology program, investigates the way that wealth -- rather than income -- structures educational opportunity.

The American Dream and the Power of Wealth: Choosing Schools and Inheriting Inequality in the Land of Opportunity (Taylor & Francis Group) draws on in-depth interviews with 200 black and white families in metropolitan areas across the country. What she discovered runs counter to the long-held notion that, in the United States, everyone has an equal shot at success, regardless of what family they were born into.

"Family histories of wealth and poverty had very real consequences for the educations and life trajectories of children," Johnson says. "This poses a challenge to the American Dream of meritocracy. Even if every individual is indeed given a chance at success, the pattern is that some groups have better chances, and this -- this pattern -- is the problem. The playing field is not level."

Education -- perceived to be the "Great Equalizer" -- theoretically ensures that each child gets an equal chance at success. Johnson argues that family wealth plays a pivotal role in parents' capacities to access the schools they would like for their children.

"Yet these same families rely on their belief in meritocracy to explain that each of us single-handedly earns, and deserves, where we end up," she says. "And even while privileged parents acknowledged the economic and educational advantages they received through family wealth, they still clung to the idea that they had individually earned and deserved what they had."

In many cases, she says, they argued vehemently that their privileged positions resulted solely from their own hard work, personal efforts, and individual achievements. They also, paradoxically, underscored their belief and faith in the quintessential American Dream.

"But while most of us are morally committed to a society wherein all people have equal life chances and success is determined by individual achievement, our conviction in the ideology of meritocracy ironically allows us to disregard the hurdles we need to overcome in order to truly achieve those principles."

Johnson has spent an inordinate amount of time considering the concept of wealth.

How is it acquired, used, and passed along? How does it impact not only the lives, but the attitudes of those blessed with it? And how do those attitudes ultimately influence public policy and affect succeeding generations?

"I consider race, class, and wealth issues to be the most pressing social concerns of our time," says Johnson, who explored poverty, wealth, and qualitative methodology at Colby College, and later at Northeastern, where she earned her Ph.D. in 2001.

These passions have fueled an academic career that has already earned her awards for performance, promise of professional achievement, and extraordinary mentoring relationships with her students.

Johnson's research in the areas of wealth, race, and social class inequality is extending on two fronts: research on privilege, specifically class privilege; and on childhood socialization and children's perspectives of class in the contemporary U.S. While much of the work in this arena has focused entirely on disadvantaged children, Johnson says she hopes to broaden the understanding of beliefs held by privileged children about income and wealth, and how these impressions affect the trajectory of their lives.

She's presented her research at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association the past two years, and was recently featured in The New York Times on the topic of children's perception of wealth.

"It's always been intriguing to me to see how children in advantaged families are socialized into a culture of privilege," she says. "It's been gratifying to me to gain one really hopeful nugget from this research, and that is the realization that knowledge can transform. It can change the way you view the world, and eventually, hopefully, impact it in a positive way."

--Linda Harbrecht

Photo by Ryan Hulvat

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Fall 2006

Posted on Tuesday, November 07, 2006

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