The American Dream is one of the fundamental ideological foundations of American society. Early depictions of the Dream described a society that freed individuals from the institutional barriers that might limit their opportunities for self-advancement. Over time, the Dream came to be associated not with institutional constraints but with individual talent and motivation. Social scientists and policymakers should aim to recapture the meaning of the original Dream and build a policy infrastructure that delivers on its radical intent.
Our current policy infrastructure is oriented toward incremental reform. Policies aim to remediate disadvantage, to sustain the current institutional structure by stepping in to replace existing supports, and to recalibrate individual decisions. That policy orientation, limited in size and scope, can never provide equality of opportunity to all children. Social scientists and policymakers have pragmatic, scientific, ideological, and self-interested reasons for limiting their efforts to proposals for incremental reform.
In designing comprehensive policy programs it is important to keep a clear view of the overarching processes that produce inequality of opportunity. Every barrier to opportunity can be traced back to the function of a social institution, and if our aim is to reduce inequality of opportunity, these institutional barriers must be addressed. Individuals from different backgrounds face different constraints on opportunity not simply because they interact with institutions that differ with respect to resources, but also because they must contend with an entire network of interlocking institutions, each of which creates constraints related to resources. It is the interconnected nature of the institutional structure that offers such a high degree of protection for the opportunities of privileged children. And it is the interconnected nature of the institutional structure that is overlooked in a small-scale, mechanistic, and incremental approach to policy.
Transformative reforms must break the links between family resources, the quality of institutions, and the coherence of the institutional network. To reduce inequality of institutional constraints we would need either to impose a substantially flatter resource distribution or to create high-quality, coherent institutional networks for all children Either of these approaches to reform could be undertaken using existing policy levers. This chapter draws upon policy reforms from other countries to describe how an agenda for radical reform could be developed in the United States. Other policies that do not already exist are also proposed and discussed.
A social science of radical reform can be built on firm scientific foundations.