Sunday, May 23, 2021

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Family Structure, and Schools


(Image reproduced from the NYTimes)

I have just read Joel Klein’s excellent article on the life of Daniel Patrick Moynihan n today’s New York Times Book Review. Moynihan has long been one of my own intellectual heroes. In our 2014 book on the problems of desegregation, Stephen J. Caldas and I wrote about the implications of the famous (or notorious, depending on your perspective) Moynihan Report for attempts to desegregate American schools. I reproduce the relevant section below.

From Still Failing: The Continuing Paradox of School Desegregation, by Stephen J. Caldas and Carl L. Bankston III (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014):

Five decades ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan touched off a storm of controversy when he argued that the high proportion of single female-headed families among black Americans threatened black children with a "tangle of pathologies."  Some of his critics denounced his views as racist; others claimed that his concerns embodied patriarchal and anti-feminist assumptions about the superiority of male-headed households. In the ensuing years, the conventional wisdom purveyed by sociology textbooks has consistently held up the Moynihan Report as an example of the "culture of poverty theory," which is identified as a reactionary line of thought that "blames the victim" of social injustice by claiming that socially disadvantaged statuses are products of inferior cultures.

            In retrospect, Moynihan deserves credit as one of the most fair-minded and prophetic of modern social critics. The eminent sociologist William Julius Wilson acknowledged in the insightful volume When Work Disappears (1996) that Moynihan did recognize that the unstable black family was the consequence of the American socioeconomic structure.  More recently, in a history of the Moynihan Report, the controversy over it and its influence, from its early days to the Obama era, James T. Patterson has argued that politicians, academics, and activists lifted quotes out of context to make accusations against Moynihan.[i] Far from “blaming the victim,” Moynihan simply and reasonably maintained that, having been produced by an unequal and discriminatory economy, one-parent families yielded unfortunate results of their own.

            Since the publication of the Moynihan report, the remarkable rise of one-parent families in American society in general has been particularly marked among African Americans. Figure 4.2 shows the percentages of American K-12 schoolchildren in married couple, single male, and single female households, by race/ethnicity, according to data from the 2012 American Community Survey. Despite the historic increase in single-parent families across demographic categories, nearly three-quarters  (72.3%) of white schoolchildren lived in married couple families, but almost two-thirds of black schoolchildren (64%) lived in households headed by a single parent, and a clear majority lived in single female-headed homes.

Figure 4.1.Percent of Births to Unmarried Mothers, by Race& Hispanic Ethnicity, 1972-2012

Source:  National Center for Health Statistics, Vital Statistics of the United States, 1980-2003, Vol. 1, Natality (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Govt. Printing Office) ; Brady E. Hamilton, Joyce A. Martin, Stephanie J. Ventura, Births: Preliminary Data for 2012. National Vital Statistics Reports, Volume 62, No. 3 (Washington: U.S. Department of Health and Human Service, 2013).


            Our research suggests that those concerned about the growth of the single-parent family have missed some of the most serious difficulties created by change in family structure. Families do not influence only their own children, and children are not socialized only by their own families. Children bring influences from their families to their peer groups and, in peer groups, share the influences of their backgrounds with one another. Children, then, are not simply affected by the composition of their own families; they are influenced by the family compositions of all those around them. The undesirable consequences of one-parent families, then, are not additive, but exponential when those from this type of home are concentrated in a social environment.

            What is the most important contemporary institution that brings young people together, producing social environments from peer groups? The answer to this question is obvious. It is the same institution chiefly responsible for preparing young people to take positions in our socioeconomic structure—the school.

            Considering the school as a social environment leads us to the following line of reasoning: (1) black American children are much more likely than white American children to live in single-parent families. (2) Children from single parent families show much higher rates of behavioral and attitudinal problems than other children do. (3) Schools with large concentrations of children from single parent families will therefore tend to be plagued by behavioral and attitudinal problems. (4) Schools with large concentrations of black children will tend to be disproportionately plagued by behavioral and attitudinal problems because these will be precisely the schools with large concentrations of children from single parent families, and (5) Children in schools with large concentrations of black children will therefore be faced with disadvantageous school learning environments. These disruptive learning environments will in general lead to lower levels of school achievement for all students in those schools, regardless of those students' own race or family background.

            This series of syllogisms indicates that prevailing family structure may be a major barrier to achievement and upward mobility for children in majority black schools. It also suggests that efforts by parents of all races (including blacks) to avoid black school districts may often be motivated by the desire to avoid less than optimal school environments caused by the predominance of children from one parent families, and not simply motivated by irrational prejudice.  In an article published in the Journal of Marriage and the Family[ii], we found that the negative association between percentages of black students in schools and levels of school achievement could be statistically attributed to the prevalence of single mother-headed families in those schools. The problem of minority schools, in other words, did not appear to be race per se. Instead, the problem seemed to be the concentration of single parent families in those schools.

            As the percentage of black children in single parent families has grown to a majority, racial redistribution has also become the redistribution of the family structures that dominate schools. This can either enhance or hurt the academics of schoolchildren. In Louisiana, where a large proportion of the public school population lives in single parent families, teachers report that negative student behavior is the primary reason they leave the profession.[iii]

Figure 4.2. Distribution of  Children in K-12 Grades among Family Structures, by Race & Ethnicity, 2012

a. Family Structures of White School Children


b. Family Structures of Black School Children

c. Family Structures of Asian School Children

d/ Family Structures of Hispanic School Children

Source: 2012 American Community Survey data, Steven Ruggles, J. Trent Alexander, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken, Matthew B. Schroeder, and Matthew Sobek. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 5.0 [Machine-readable database] (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2014).




[i] James T. Patterson. Freedom is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle Over Black Family Life – From LBJ to Obama (New York: Basic Books, 2010).

[ii] Carl L. Bankston III & Stephen J. Caldas, “Family Structure, Schoolmates, and the Racial Inequalities in School Achievement,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 60 (1998): 715-723.

[iii] Mike Hasten, “State Officials Pleased With Accountability Ranking,” The Advertiser, January 7, 2004, B3.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Introduction to "American Ideas of Equality: A Social History, 175-2020"

 The following is the introduction to American Ideas of Equality: A Social History, 1750-2020 (Cambria Press, 2021). The book is available from the publisher in inexpensive e-book and hardcover at

Introduction: The Problem of Equality   

A Complicated Notion

            In my university classes on social stratification, I frequently ask students whether they see “equality” as a desirable goal for a society. Inevitably, they say that they do and they will characterize movement toward greater equality in American society as progressive and as the way of social justice.  So, I ask them, do you think that we should all receive the same incomes or live in uniform houses?  Very few students agree to that kind of equality, but they often do say that smaller gaps in material well-being than we have today would be desirable, without being able to specify just how small or great those gaps should be. Pressed, they will generally explain that the kind of equality they really favor is a competitive inequality.  Everyone should have the same chance to obtain unequal rewards. But wouldn’t competition for jobs or offices make the desired positions more unequal, I ask, since increasing demand raises market value?  And wouldn’t the unequal results tend to make future competition unequal, since more and less successful competitors, or their children, would not be starting from the same places?

            Sometimes the students will tell me that what they mean by equality is really political equality or equality under the law. But f political equality means that every individual has exactly the same voice in governance as every other individual, then the attainment of this state is unlikely in most real world situations if it is ever possible at all. Even in a small community that practices direct democracy some people will be more engaged, more vociferous, or more persuasive than others, so that some will have greater influence.  Coalitions and selective cooperation among some sets of people will result in differences in power to direct decision-making.

            Even in that small community, wealth, as well as persuasive ability, weighs heavily on decision-making. Those with greater resources have more influence. In a large and complex society, access to means of communication or ownership of those means greatly magnifies the influence, so that formal political equality is not only consistent with inequality of power, but the former can contribute to the latter.

            Equality under the law faces problems of both economic and political inequality. As Anatole France wrote, “La majestueuse égalité des lois, qui interdit au riche comme au pauvre de coucher sous les ponts, de mendier dans les rues et de voler du pain [“the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread].[i]

            A few students will tell me that for them equality means a true equality of condition, with all individuals in the same situations. If this means that all have the same shares in goods and resources, though, then some power must control distribution, so that attempts to achieve and maintain economic egalitarianism often imply concentration of political control. In Weberian terms, control over distribution shifts inequality from Class to Party.

            Other students will say that they use the term “equality” to mean the equal representation of members of racial, ethnic, or gender categories in desired positions or equality of outcomes among those categories. This is a reasonable response, given the inequities of our history. Again, though, this is a type of unequal equality, since it would make variations in power or life chances occurrences within these categories, instead of among them. The pursuit of what I call “categorical equalization” in this book also entails the intensified use of political control.

            It is not my intent to argue for or against any of these versions of equality in this book. Nor do I propose to make a case for any particular brand of market or socialist economy. Instead, my goal is to explore the ways in which the fundamental American commitment to something called equality have evolved and shifted over the course of the nation’s history. Although we often use this term without reflection as if we know exactly what it means, it refers to a protean concept that has taken different forms and received varying emphases in different periods. The modern notion of equality among human beings is ambiguous and involves self-contradictions and paradoxes.  Social, economic, and political realities have frequently been inconsistent with expressed ideals of equality, and reconciling ideals with realities has entailed selective awareness.

            In the following pages, I argue that the essential but troublesome American concept of equality has been a product of interrelated historical forces.  One of these is cultural transmission. No society creates its stock of ideas entirely anew, and the past remains always with us, although the values and images we receive from the past require modification to fit changing circumstances. Another force is the economic and political setting of a given period. Equality of opportunity, for example, depends on the availability of opportunities. Political equality depends on the structure of government. Yet a third force is communication. Ideas clearly exist in communication, so media shape ideas.


Summary of the argument

The American nation began with debates over the nature of social and economic equality and over the implications of equality for the establishment of government. The break with European domination involved an ideological break with hierarchies of inherited status, with aristocracy. Early American views of equality, then, were founded on the independence of individuals from hierarchy. But this very independence, some worried, might bring about a new inequality, in the form of a “natural aristocracy.” This was an early form of the contradiction between equality of condition and equality of opportunity. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, an ideology of individual, self-reliant upward mobility combined with the compartmentalization of excluded groups to enable Americans to reconcile the contradictory parts of the national ideal of equality.

The ideology of the “self-made man,” communicated through the ubiquitous medium of newspapers, came under pressure from a changing economic environment and evolved over the decades, but continued to be a critical part of our system of beliefs. In the late nineteenth century an expanding industrial economy, with heavy immigration to fill the bottom ranks encouraged Americans to see their society as providing perpetual opportunity for upward mobility. African Americans, though, who provided much of the unskilled labor, particularly in agriculture, continued to be compartmentalized. A distinction between gender-based public and domestic spheres also continued to compartmentalize women.

In the late twentieth century, two developments, along with the rise of mass visual media, began to bring the contradictions in our commitment to equality to the surface. First, the rise of the affluent society after World War II created the expectation that upward mobility should not simply be an opportunity for all individuals, but a reality for all members of society. Second, the recognition that previously compartmentalized groups had been excluded stimulated demands for promoting and subsidizing the upward mobility of the least advantaged.

In the twenty-first century, expanding demands for categorical equality came increasingly into conflict with inherited and more individualistic notions. The technology-finance economy caused economic opportunities to contract even as expectations that universal upward mobility should be the norm continued. New electronic media gave rise to a boutique communication economy catering to specialized identities, perceptions, and resentments. Technological change both fostered economic concentration and stimulated the flourishing of identity groups competing over narrowing resources in an era of fragmentation and polarization.

Readers may note, especially in the later chapters of the book that treat more recent historical developments, that I offer few solutions to problems of inequality. This is intentional. My goal is to provide a descriptive and interpretive history of concepts of equality for the sake of understanding, not to engage in prescribing remedies for social problems. Nevertheless, I do include some very brief thoughts at the end about the importance of compromise in a diverse society with differing and frequently conflicting views on the meaning of one of its foundational principles.

Readers should also keep in mind that this book is an effort to identify how ideas of inequality have evolved over the course of American history. As I have observed in the opening paragraphs, inequality is a complicated notion. My concern is not with analyzing every kind of inequality or equality, but at exploring which kinds have received public attention over the course of our history and why.


Plan of the Book

Chapter 1 examines equality as a foundational ideal of the early American republic. Although there were wide regional variations in stratification at the time of the American Revolution, the rural nature of early North America and the availability of land for settlement and speculation encouraged the desire for independence from England and the idea that equality was a matter of individual independence from Old World hierarchy. The agrarian basis of this equality of independence made advocates of urban, commercial interests suspect in the eyes of Jeffersonian egalitarians. The reaction against hierarchy also raised an early version of debate over the implications of individual achievement. Might the old aristocracy of birth be replaced by a “natural aristocracy” of ability, effort, and luck that would re-establish hierarchy? The ideal of an equality of independence was also deeply inconsistent with the institution of slavery, an inconsistency generally managed by compartmentalizing an entire racial category.

Chapter 2 describes how the independent yeoman of the early years of the American republic became the “self-made man” in the years before the Civil War. The expanding boundaries of the nation, increasing opportunities for farm ownership and for success in manufacturing enterprises. The chapter looks at equality and mobility in the expanding nation through the eyes of two foreign observers, Alexis de Tocqueville and Fanny Trollope. It explores the centrality of the image of the self-made man in the politics of an era characterized by widening male suffrage and by popular communication by newspapers, which became a primary way of expressing and popularizing equality as the opportunity for individual self-creation. The chapter ends with sections on two major contradictions of the belief in the self-made individual: slaves and women.

Chapter 3 follows the transformation of the concept of the self-made man during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a time that saw the growth of major corporations, rapid urbanization, the growth of formal organizations such as public schools, and massive immigration. It explores the movement known as “Progressivism” as a response to political, economic, and social centralization and bureaucratization. In the increasingly bureaucratic setting of the time, equality began to take on the implication of the equality of citizens before a central, organizing state. The popularity of success literature reflected the view that self-made men were those who could draw upon their own talents and energies to rise in a corporate bureaucratic environment. This environment also placed an increased emphasis on formal education as a way of fitting individuals into a corporate environment and as a way of enabling the competition for success. The great wave of immigration that accompanied the expanding economy both fostered the ideal of America as the land of opportunity and it produced a system of ethnic stratification. While racial segregation maintained African Americans in many ways at the bottom of the stratification system, it also provided, in ideals at least, a parallel path to self-made success, as reflected in the popular autobiography of Booker T. Washington. Although women were still generally compartmentalized in a separate domestic sphere, the concept of the abstract citizen, equal in formal organizations began to challenge gender segregation.

In Chapter 4, I look at the further development of the bureaucratic society during the time of the New Deal. I argue that one of the chief characteristics of the bureaucratic society was the unequal equality of individuals in hierarchical organizations, which laid the foundation for what would later become known as “meritocracy.” The enhanced role of government in this bureaucratic society also encouraged the development of a concept of social citizenship, which included enhanced federal responsibilities for the welfare of citizens. The equality of citizens lay in their claims on the benefits and resources provided by government. Economic distribution, as measured by shares of income, became more equal during this period, setting expectations for greater equality of condition that would be promoted by governmental intervention and regulation, with the equality of citizens seen in terms of consumption. The emergence of mass media, in the form of radio, helped to absorb individuals into the social citizenship of the bureaucratic society. Political attempts to spread benefits and guarantees of participation and material security across broad swathes of a national population stimulated thinking of equality in categorical terms, largely defined by social classes. Formal education also responded to the corporate setting, as it took on more of a role of the political shaping social citizens. Despite the beginning of thinking about equality in terms of social categories, political pressures continued the bracketing out of African American citizens. The chapter ends with looking at the emergence of contested ideas of equality during the New Deal period.

Chapter 5 describes these contested ideas as largely slipping into the background during the boom post-World War II years, mainly the late 1940s and 1950s. Following the war, the country enjoyed rapidly increasing levels of production and consumption, along with a relative equalization of incomes known as “the Great Compression.” A wider distribution of income was accompanied by structural upward mobility, an increase in desirable, well-paid, prestigious occupations requiring high levels of education. American society began to look like a race that everyone had the opportunity to win, and, following a pattern established by the New Deal, government played an active role in subsidizing these opportunities through support for mortgages, education, and other sources of upward mobility. In higher education, in particular, one of the consequences was the appearance of a new “natural aristocracy,” in the form of what was now called a “meritocracy.” At the time, though, the questions that an elite of achievement might pose about social and economic equality, raised in the early republic, were obscured by the increasing structural mobility, making it look like there was “room at the top” for everyone. An undercurrent of criticism of what appeared to be a homogenizing, conformist culture did appear, though. Along with this critical undercurrent, the very expectation that success and material well-being should be universally available provoked objections from other social critics, who pointed out that some were still excluded. Faith in the capacity of policy led these critics to argue for more active political intervention, to bring all into the realm of abundance and opportunity. Television contributed high consumer expectations and to national centralization. The period saw the ideal of categorical equality, of equality applied to groups as opposed to individuals, begin to challenge traditional individual-level concepts. Legal challenges to racial discrimination in schooling were initially based on meritocratic ideals of individual opportunity, but these would also lead to efforts at categorical equalization.

Chapter 6 follows by tracing efforts at group equalization during the 1960s and early 1970s.  The era of the Civil Rights movement placed a new focus on group equalization, drawing attention to previously suppressed contradictions in traditional American concepts of equality. This was the consequence of four main developments. First, the material abundance of the postwar years had encouraged thinking of the nation’s primary challenge as one of extending high standards of living throughout the society. Second, mass communication promoted consumer expectations across all parts of the society. Third, mass communication also provided a national theater for members of groups excluded from benefits and opportunities. Fourth, the expansion of governmental social intervention encouraged thinking about improving standards of living in general and equalizing life chances across categories of people as problems that could be solved by means of public policy. The chapter gives particular attention to how the model for thinking about equality developed by the Civil Rights movement expanded to categories beyond race. It considers how policies of categorical equalization in employment and education both incorporated earlier individual-level concepts of equality and conflicted with those concepts.

The final chapter brings the history up to the present time. In a discussion of the economic setting, the chapter points out that by the late 1970s the trend of general income equalization and structural upward mobility were over, even as Americans continued to expect that life chances and opportunities should improve. The development of an economy dominated by advanced technology and finance was one of the most important characteristics of this setting. Centralized mass communication gave way to the new social media that were part of the technology-finance economy. The new social media were both centralizing and decentralizing. In terms of ownership, knowledge-intensive and capital-intensive promoted an oligopoly. At the same time, though, they produced a boutique economy of communication, encouraging the splitting of the society into interest and identity groups. This fragmentation contributed to the growth of a form of populism in American politics. At the same time, the narrowing of opportunities heightened the contradictions involved in trying to subsidize upward mobility for group equalization. This narrowing of opportunities during a time that government policies attempted to increase opportunities for excluded groups combined with competing forms of identity politics to reinforce partisan political polarization, as shown in voting patterns. Competing ideas about the nature of equality and the role of government in equalization encouraged disenchantment with the American political system, as well as polarization. The chapter concludes by considering how historically developed, conflicting ideas about equality had come to reflect a polarized and fragmented society.

[i] Anatole France, Le Lys rouge (Paris: Caimann-Lévy, 1894) 118

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

John Rawls and the Fantasyland of Social Justice

The view that we can conceive of a society organized on principles of justice and then move toward making this conception a reality is one of the historic wellsprings of social theory. It is also, I think, fundamentally mistaken. Plato’s Republic is probably the earliest and one of the most influential examples of trying to create through reasoning a mental image of a just set of social relations. Although a marvelous work of philosophy and literature, the Republic describes a polity that could never be realized. Perhaps even more seriously, this sketch of an ideal city-state was an outline of totalitarianism. As Max Beerbohm quipped, in a couplet on Plato’s and all other utopias: “Oh, is this utopia? Well, / I beg your pardon, I thought it was hell.” 
A utopia can be a thought experiment, with no goal bringing it into existence. When Thomas More coined the word “utopia,” he did not intend to design an alternative to the England of his day, but to fashion an imaginary land as way of thinking about his England. This was different, though, from the utopian schemes of late modern social theorists, who have portrayed their imaginary worlds as blueprints for building the right kind of society.  
Of all the modern theorists of an imaginary world, none can equal Karl Marx in influence on the existing world. Marx’s speculations inspired the Communist regimes of the twentieth century, dictatorships that in the course of their efforts to engineer utopia became as hellish as anything that could be imagined by Max Beerbohm. More benignly, democratic socialist parties and governments grew out of versions of Marxist theory, although in their accommodation of socialism to democracy these quietly discarded visions of an alternative world in favor of taxation and governmental services. 
While Plato had placed his visionary polity in the realm of pure reason, Marx found his in a prediction of the future. In the struggle of classes, a proletariat of growing size and intensifying impoverishment would seize the means of production from the bourgeoisie and establish an egalitarian system of social and economic relations. Political philosopher Eric Voegelin characterized this belief that the future held an alternative world of heaven realized on earth as “the immanentization of the eschaton,” a secular expression of Gnosticism, in which disorder and imperfection could be transcended by thought and brought into being by policy. 
So far in history, Marx’s predictions have turned out to be completely off. Advanced capitalist societies did not experience deepening poverty leading to revolutions, but entered a period of mass production benefitting nearly all. The middle classes, barely recognized by Marx, expanded rapidly. Even over the past three decades, as relative inequality has increased by most measures in developed nations, absolute standards of living have improved and are certainly far better than in Marx’s day.   
Part of the answer to the question of why Marx’s predictions were wrong is that there were many developments he did not, and perhaps could not, foresee. For example, advancements in technology and corporate organization improved productivity so that profits in a competitive environment did not depend on pushing workers to produce more and live on less. Businesses knew that they needed buyers for their products, and a proletariat with no spending power could not provide these buyers. Shareholder owned corporations were much more complex entities than the privately owned factories of Marx’s day. In political systems based on elections, even if power is unequally distributed and voter may be misled about their true interests, political leaders find it difficult to survive if the situation of the electorate is continually worsening. 
Beneath all of these possible reasons Marx’s vision did not come to fruition, though, lies one more fundamental reason: social theory is not reality, but a simplification of reality. Our theories can give us tentative descriptions of aspects of the world we live in and provide us with hypotheses that may explain specific events or relationships. A theory of a “countersystem,” an alternative reality created by thought, is nothing more than a fantasy. 
The Alternative World of John Rawls 
John Rawls was perhaps the most important political philosopher since the mid-twentieth century and certainly the most influential figure in shaping contemporary ideas of social justice. I’ve suggested in a previous article in another publication that “[s]ome version of his theory can arguably be found in most uses of the term social justice, even on the lips of those who have never read him.” Rawls was not a Marxist. He did not engage in class analysis or favor the seizure of the means of production by the working class. In some respects, Rawls was more similar to Plato than to Marx, since the twentieth century philosopher concentrated on how to define justice and not on instigating social movements. But Rawls shared with both Plato and Marx the imagination of an alternative world. 
In his 1971 book, A Theory of Justice, Rawls attempted to define justice by looking at what kind of society would be characterized as just. He argued that justice should be seen as a question of the fairness of the organization of a society and of its internal divisions. To address what would be a fair kind of social organization, he adopted a classical hypothetical ploy from social contract theory. He posited an original state of nature, outside of society, in which all are equal individuals.  He did not suggest that any such original state had ever existed.  This was a thought experiment, but not one that would simply serve the purpose of social criticism as More’s utopia had, but as a basis for guiding action and policies. 
In the best-known part of the book, Rawls employs a “veil of ignorance” to approach how we might look at our own society from the perspective of a fictional original state of nature. If we existed outside of any society and were going to enter into one, and we did not know what places we would occupy, what kind of social organization would we rationally choose?  Rawls claimed that our choice would be for the social structure that would benefit each of us most if we happened to land in the least desirable position. Achieving a just society, then, would mean moving toward one that bestows the greatest possible benefits on its least advantaged members. 
The Rawlsian approach has a clear bias toward redistribution, since inequality is only acceptable to the extent that benefits those at the bottom. It is not, however, necessarily a prescription for socialism. If some form of capitalism yields greater rewards to its most deprived citizens, then that is the most just society. 
On inspection, this positional approach to justice seems to have some odd implications. In the traditional, Aristotelian concept of justice, justice is a matter of individuals getting what they deserve. A just society is one that rewards good actions and punishes bad ones. But there is no room for asking what individuals deserve as a consequence of their virtues or actions in the Rawlsian version. It does not matter if you are at the bottom of the society because of laziness, lack of ability, bad luck, family background, or mistreatment by others. Justice depends on how you are treated simply because of where you are.  
While Rawls did at times voice support for equality of opportunity, he was notably ambivalent about the justice of rewarding individual talents that enable people to make use of opportunities. Behind that veil of ignorance, you do not know whether you will come into a society with intelligence, athletic ability, or interpersonal skills. Even more seriously, your skills and talents will probably not be entirely innate, but will be developed as a consequence of where you land in the social organization. 
This problem of making personal virtue irrelevant to justice should make us suspicious of the claim that any rational person, existing behind the veil of ignorance, would choose to favor the least advantaged simply because they are the least advantaged. Because the state of nature is purely imaginary, we have no way of knowing whether it would be most rational to minimize our risks, maximize our possibilities, or base what we might choose on the kinds of people we might be after stepping through the veil. 
The choice that Rawls thought he and any other rational person would make has the consequence of turning whomever is judged to be at the bottom of a social order into the only individual or group of individuals who matters in measuring the fairness of the order. This makes the interests of all others irrelevant, except insofar as they happen to coincide with the well-being of the most disadvantaged. Who are these people who serve as the metric of fairness for everyone else? While Rawls made relatively little reference to social categories such as the holy trinity of race, class, and gender, removing all identifiable individual characteristics through the heuristic veil of ignorance effectively reduces people to social positions, so that categories considered disadvantaged become a convenient way to define who will be considered the sole measurement of the extent to which a society approaches the ideal. This emphasis on relative disadvantage also lends itself to thinking about the categories in terms of oppression and victimization. Rawlsian social justice leads directly to a cult of victimhood. 
The alternative reality Rawls proposed, the just society found by reflecting on what kind of world a Harvard professor would choose if he did not know that he would have the good fortune to become a Harvard professor, entailed ignoring human societies as complex, dynamic webs of institutions and relationships that develop and change over the course of history. Instead, an imagined world would serve as the moral pattern for the real world. 
The most fundamental problem with this countersystem perspective goes beyond the delusion that we can judge reality by the standards of fiction. The just society found behind the veil of ignorance is a totality. Efforts at social reform are not attempts to change specific laws or practices that conflict with our ideas of fairness, but to reorganize the entire society according to a single moral pattern. In the ideal model of a society considered as just, there is no room for moral pluralism.  
Pluralism means that a nation or a community consists of many different, often competing goods and interests. The political thinker Isaiah Berlin described this pluralism of values and goals as “incommensurability.”  Individual freedom from political control and pursuit of economic equality, for example, often exist in opposition.  When parents invest in maximizing the educational opportunities of their own children, they necessarily promote the competitive positions of their children beyond those of children in families less able to make investments. 
Precisely because we have so many different individuals and groups pursuing varied interests, there is no overall pattern of a just ordering. Bringing social relations into conformity with a moral blueprint entails dedication to control and coordination. This poses practical problems because people tend to stubbornly pursue their own interests, whether or not those advance the cause of disadvantaged categories, even when they genuinely accept a social justice ideology. But it also produces a culture of conformity and intolerance.  
In the contemporary version of Rawlsian social justice, those who claim to speak for “the marginalized” make claims to absolute moral authority aimed at re-ordering the whole of the society. Those who disagree with them or who fail to fall into the ideological line of formation cannot be seen as having a different set of legitimate goals or even as simply being mistaken. Any deviation from the cause of the redesigning society for the sake of the disadvantaged categories is injustice.  
Because societies are not drawn up from the blueprints of planners but evolve from the complex interrelationships of people over their histories, the abstraction of a “just society” can never fit reality. It is a bit like the floating island of Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels, in which clothes are made according to the geometry of abstract thought and therefore never fit their wearers.  The difference is that the social justice tailor aims to cut the wearer to suit the apparel.