Being a poli sci major when I was in school, one thing I hated was looking at definitions, statistics, etc. versus the bigger picture. This particular conversation, however, is one in which the definition is key to the bigger picture and defining issues and "good" policy.
The problem with the left, and even the center, in American politics today, is that there is a sense of "social justice" which uses inequities as an excuse to push for automatic equality for all racial, gender, and socio-economic groups. Understanding the difference between equity and equality, and the importance of maintaining equity, but also maintaining inequality, in a capitalist system is key to keeping the American dream alive and understanding the proper, limited goal of the government in our lives.
Equality, as it relates to "social justice" and politics is the idea that all people are inherently equal, and equally deserving of everything from liberty to the "finer things in life." This is inherently false, and a dangerous idea to democracy, and, especially, capitalism and the free market. The American dream is built on the idea that through creativity, intelligence, natural ability, and hard work, one can set themselves ahead of the masses. Thus, we all start out somewhere on a scale of unequal conditions, and our goal, our drive to give something to our economy and our society, is to move somewhere up that scale.
Equity, on the other hand, is the idea of a fair distribution of resources, and, in particular, opportunity. That is, if two people are born in very different situations, but have the same skills, abilities, intelligence, and drive, will both have equal access to the tools needed to fulfill their idea of the American dream.
The left will consistently point out how inequitable our society is. They point to statistics of the poor barely making it by, sending their children to underfunded schools so hungry that they cannot focus on the lessons taught by unqualified teachers. They point out that there are few jobs available in minority and poor neighborhoods.
This is all true, and these are issues that need to be addressed. The left, however, then turn around and in the same breath oppose school vouchers, and support instead the redistribution of wealth that we know as social welfare programs. They support unemployment, welfare, food stamps, and other programs which redistribute resources to the poor and to minorities.
This does not solve the underlying problems. While making our society more equal, these programs do little to make our society more equitable. They take away the incentive to work, while also not providing the infrastructure or education to make it possible for the people in these neighborhoods to work, and to raise themselves out of their current conditions.
Unemployment, poverty, or drug addiction should not be comfortable or pleasant. It should not be easy. It should not be secure. If it were, what would be the incentive to progress in life?
If we want to truly right the wrongs of an imperfect society with an imperfect history, we should remove the funding from social "safety net" programs, and redirect it all at meaningful, effective, educational reform. From charter schools to school vouchers, what that means is forcing educational institutions to compete for students and funding, even students from low income areas. By continually complaining about underfunded urban schools, we encourage our officials to reward under-performing districts with increased funding. Instead, by offering charter and magnet schools, vouchers, and, if necessary, transportation, we have the potential to force real improvement in our education system. By basing school funding on where parents choose to send their children to school, not based on geographical boundaries, we force school administrators and teachers who wish to keep their jobs to perform.
Although it may seem cold hearted to leave a generation which did not have access to these reforms behind, the best thing we can do to truly make the American dream a reality is to make sure that the current generation is the last to suffer through this. Make sure that every American child has access to quality education, from educators, schools, and systems which are fighting to remain one step ahead. Run our schools like businesses. Make them accountable for the money they spend, and make them compete with the competition. This is the only way to make them perform. When our schools perform for all of our students, we will be a huge step closer to an equitable society.