Author: Jessica Roberts

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Health as a Bottleneck

In his thoughtful and path-breaking book, Bottlenecks: A New Theory of Equal Opportunity, Joey Fishkin challenges the common conception of equal opportunity as providing a level playing field.  He explains that merely equalizing opportunity at critical points in a person’s life, such when she applies for a desirable job or college program, is often not enough. By then, social inequities and previous limited opportunities may have already taken their toll on the affected individuals, perhaps leaving them underprepared and ill-equipped to meaningfully compete—let alone succeed—even when given the chance.  Fishkin explains that this line of reasoning puts us in a vicious cycle: To achieve true equal opportunity, interventions must happen earlier.  But when is earlier?  The disadvantaged job applicant could have benefited from a better college education.  Yet the disadvantaged college student could also have benefited from a better high school education.  And the disadvantaged high school student could have benefited from a better primary school education. And the disadvantaged primary school student could have benefited from having parents with higher incomes and more time to devote to parenting, which just takes us back to the disadvantaged job applicant.  Hence, Fishkin identifies a key flaw in the traditional construction of equal opportunity: We are all the products of our opportunities, and those opportunities can never be truly “equal.”  To that end, he endorses “opportunity pluralism,” which he defines as making more opportunities available to more people.  Thus, in a society that limits educational or job opportunities based on a particular standardized test, we can move away from asking whether the test is a fair metric and instead ask why the opportunity structure depends upon its results.

Fishkin christens these opportunity-limiting factors “bottlenecks” and pushes us to understand traditional antidiscrimination protections through that lens.  Thus, well-known protected statuses, such as race and sex, can be understood as bottlenecks because certain opportunities have been construed to require whiteness or maleness.  But legally recognized antidiscrimination categories, such as race and sex, are not the only bottlenecks we have to contend with.  Employers also restrict opportunities based on other factors, such as college education, credit history, criminal convictions, or unemployment.  My own scholarship has dealt extensively with yet another employer bottleneck: health.

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