Daily Archives: January 5, 2011

Upward Mobility Gap

Flickr photo by Herve Demers

Doyle McManus (of the L.A. Times) has a nice piece citing Robert Putnam on some of our unpublished research evincing “canaries in the coalmine” that are likely to block upward mobility in the US in the decades ahead if unremedied.

Opportunity in America isn’t what it used to be either. Among children born into low-income households, more than two-thirds grow up to earn a below-average income, and only 6 percent make it all the way up the ladder into the affluent top one-fifth of income earners, according to a study by economists at Washington’s Brookings Institution…. Children born into poverty in Canada, Britain, Germany or France have a statistically better chance of reaching the top than poor kids do in the United States….

[In addition to the decline of public schools,] Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam argues that thanks partly to the rise of two-income households, intermarriage between rich and poor has declined, choking off another historical upward path for the underprivileged….”We’re becoming two societies, two Americas,” Putnam told me recently. “There’s a deepening class divide that shows up in many places. It’s not just a matter of income. Education is becoming the key discriminant in American life. Family structure is part of it too.”…

“Success in life increasingly depends on how smart you were in choosing your parents,” Putnam said. “And that flies in the face of the fundamental American bargain — that every kid ought to have access to the same opportunities.”…Most Americans accept inequality in the economy as long as the ladder of opportunity is accessible to anyone who wants to work hard. The best way for America to reclaim its self-image as a land of opportunity is to ensure that every kid has access to a decent education — now more than ever the first step onto the ladder. That’s why bipartisan education reform isn’t just about fixing schools; it’s about repairing the fabric of American society.

Read “The Upward Mobility Gap” (Doyle McManus, L.A. Times, 1/2/11)

See also some interesting recent articles in NY Times on how pay of superstars stifles everybody else, and another article that attempts to reconcile Americans’ dislike of equalizing income with declining mobility by showing how in America being middle class is more driven by aspirations than income.  And finally, research conducted at Harvard Business School that ironically shows that most Americans would prefer an income distribution more similar to Sweden’s (far more egalitarian than in the US) over the current American income distribution.

Paul Krugman in “A Tale of Two Moralities” (NY Times Op-Ed, January 15, 2011) writes: “…I’ll also have a lot to say about how far we really are from being a society of equal opportunity, in which success depends solely on one’s own efforts.”

Michael Gerson (Washington Post columnist) also had a very thoughtful column on this issue, indicating that this issue (upward mobility) should be the issue that Republicans should be discussing.  See “The economic debate that we should be having” (Dec. 14, 2010)  Gerson writes:

“…the main reasons for inequality are failing schools, depressed and dysfunctional communities and fragmented families. For the most part, inequality does not result from a lack of consumption by the poor but from a lack of social capital and opportunity.

This does not release conservatives from responsibility because the distribution of social capital and opportunity is dramatically unequal. Economic inequality can be justified as the reward for greater effort – so long as there is also social mobility. In the absence of mobility, capitalism becomes a caste system. And this is what America, in violation of its self-image, threatens to become. The United States has less upward economic mobility among lower-income families than Canada, Finland or Sweden. Americans who are born into the middle class have a roughly equal chance of ascending or descending the economic ladder. But Americans born poor are likely to stay on its lowest rungs.

Addressing the actual causes of inequality should be common ground for the center-left and center-right – and politically appealing to American voters, who are generally more concerned about opportunity than income equality. A mobility agenda might include measures to discourage teen pregnancy; increase the rewards for work; encourage wealth-building and entrepreneurship; reform preschool programs; improve infant and child health; increase teacher quality; and increase high school graduation rates and college attendance among the poor. Children of low-income parents who gain a college degree triple their chance of earning $85,000 a year or more. If America had the same fraction of single-parent families as it had in 1970, the child poverty rate would be about 30 percent lower.”