This strikes many progressives as harsh and unfeeling, but millions of Americans think this this is true because that’s what their experience has been, and as Fisher was arguing, it’s not necessarily true that a lean public sector is worse for working people. Texas (which is to the United States as the United States is to Britain on these kinds of comparisons) has pronounced income inequality, but the most recent round of Census data found that it’s one of the few states where median household incomes rose in 2011, and economists at the Dallas Fed have found that Texas is creating middle-income jobs at a greater rate than the United States as a whole.
Whether the American system is “better” than a safer, more predictable, more statist approach is a philosophical question, but in any case, this is a deal we we made, as a people, a long time ago. John Adams described it in 1780 in a letter to his wife Abigail: "I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain."
With that in mind, I wohighly recommend Jason DeParle’s story, in the New York Times, about three women from Galveston--the “triplets,” as they were known at their high school, because they were so close--who were determined to break the cycle, took the logical steps to that effect, made it to college, and then fell short. "With little guidance from family or school officials, college became a leap that they braved without a safety net,” writes DeParle:
"The story of their lost footing is also the story of something larger — the growing role that education plays in preserving class divisions. Poor students have long trailed affluent peers in school performance, but from grade-school tests to college completion, the gaps are growing. With school success and earning prospects ever more entwined, the consequences carry far: education, a force meant to erode class barriers, appears to be fortifying them."
In other words, climbing the ladder is getting harder than it used to be, for economic reasons rather than social ones (like bias) or legal ones (like employment discrimination). DeParle cites a number of reasons why: the cost of a university education, for one thing, is getting more expensive, and the structural economy has changed since Adams’ day: if you're in the second generation and you want to go into agriculture, you can't just grab a roll of barb wire and fence yourself some farmland in Oklahoma.
What DeParle's story illustrates so well, however, is that people could also use some kind of backstop, because inevitably something’s going to go wrong: a car breaks down, or a natural disaster hits the island, or suddenly there’s a baby involved, etc. Over time, a person's capacity to bounce back from these things increases--you finish your education or training, or you build up a nest egg, or you start to qualify for better jobs--but for young people, especially, the consequences of early setbacks tend to linger.
This brings us to what DeParle politely calls “changes in family structure, which have left fewer low-income students with the support of two-parent homes”--financial support, but also emotional support (as when parents advocate for their children's interests) and logistical guidance. As America's public-sector safety net is small relative to what we see in other rich countries, people have historically relied on ad-hoc personal safety nets as a supplement, and “traditional” family structures have been one of the major hedges against insecurity and poverty for many Americans since the beginning of time (1776), though not the only one. (I would like to think that this is one of the reasons that social conservatives are so exercised about “the decline of the family," although I’m uncomfortable with that way of putting it because “the decline of the family" is pretty closely tied to things like "women’s rights,” etc., which I support.) Given all of this we would do well to keep an eye out for alternative ways to supplement the safety net, whether from the government, the private sector, civil society, churches, or other voluntary or informal arrangements. In the absence of reliable bulwarks, the ladder is going to get more slippery. At stake is equality of opportunity, not just equality of outcomes.