Category Archives: mobility

Good places for kids’ social mobility

Scholars Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hedren, Patrick Kline and Emmanuel Saez (from Harvard and Berkeley) have garnered richly deserved  attention for their interesting retrospective look at which places were the best in America for low-income kids to be born in 1980 and 1981 to assure the highest rates of youth mobility.  [Amazingly, to do this, they were able to examine tax returns of all Americans and connect the youth with where they had grown up.]

Map of historic youth mobility in US

[To explore the above map where blue areas are areas of highest mobility and red areas are areas of lowest mobility, visit the New York Times site.]

Their work rhymes with two pieces of research that we have done.

First, they find that the places that promoted the greatest level of mobility were  places high in social capital.  [For an image of social capital by state in the US c. 2000 see here.] This is less surprising, since other scholars have found that places with high social capital were among the places historically to invest in public high schools (e.g., Larry Katz and Claudia Goldin’s work on the birth of American public high school movement in the American heartland).  Moreover, recent research by our research team, highlighted in Robert Putnam’s “Crumbling American Dreams” shows the changes in levels of community solidarity and togetherness, exemplified by the changes in his home town of Port Clinton, OH.

Second, they find that places with greater percentages of minorities were also places that afforded less social mobility for young people.  This resonates with work of Ed Glaeser and Alberto Alesina on how it is harder to foster public investments in places of greater diversity (in the US and Europe) and work that we did in “E Pluribus Unum” that also discusses the short-term challenges of increased diversity.

While their work is retrospective, we are actively involved in gathering data on social mobility for youth from the bottom third of American households (in income and education) that strongly suggests that whether levels of mobility that existed for lower-third youth in the past, future rates of mobility are likely to much lower.  Stay tuned for our evidence of this coming crisis and what we might do about it.

Great NYT Op-Ed on stalling youth opportunity by Jen Silva (UPDATED 7/2013)

Flickr/nfscnnr

Flickr/nfscnnr

One of our post-doctoral researchers, Jen Silva, has a very interesting op-Ed in Sunday’s New York Times that comes out of her research talking to young people in Lowell, MA and Richmond, VA about the challenges for working-class youth today.

Snippet:

In a working-class neighborhood in Lowell, Mass., in early 2009, I sat across the table from Diana, then 24, in the kitchen of her mother’€™s house. Diana had planned to graduate from college, marry, buy a home in the suburbs and have kids, a dog and a cat by the time she was 30. But she had recently dropped out of a nearby private university after two years of study and with nearly $80,000 in student loans. Now she worked at Dunkin’€™ Donuts.

‘€œWith college,’€ she explained, ‘€œI would have had to wait five years to get a degree, and once I get that, who knows if I will be working and if I would find something I wanted to do. I don’€™t want to be a cop or anything. I don’€™t know what to do with it. My manager says some people are born to make coffee, and I guess I was born to make coffee.’€

Young working-class men and women like Diana are trying to figure out what it means to be an adult in a world of disappearing jobs, soaring education costs and shrinking social support networks. Today, only 20 percent of men and women between 18 and 29 are married. They live at home longer, spend more years in college, change jobs more frequently and start families later.

For more affluent young adults, this may look a lot like freedom. But for the hundred-some working-class 20- and 30-somethings I interviewed between 2008 and 2010 in Lowell and Richmond, Va., at gas stations, fast-food chains, community colleges and temp agencies, the view is very different.

Lowell and Richmond embody many of the structural forces, like deindustrialization and declining blue-collar jobs, that frame working-class young people’€™s attempts to come of age in America today. The economic hardships of these men and women, both white and black, have been well documented. But often overlooked are what the sociologists Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb in 1972 called their ‘€œhidden injuries’€ -€” the difficult-to-measure social costs borne by working-class youths as they struggle to forge stable and meaningful adult lives.

The stories of young people growing up today from different walks of life will figure prominent in our forthcoming book on the growing youth opportunity gap in the US.

For those anxious to get their fix now of these stories, read Jen Silva’s book, “Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty(Oxford University Press, 2013).

See also Jen’s piece in Salon re decline of working-class marriages with interesting snippets from her interviews.

Stalled upward social mobility in America [UPDATED 2/14/12]

Flickr photo by AtleBrunvoll

Rana Foroohar’s cover story in TIME (Nov. 2011) is entitled What Ever Happened to Upward Mobility? Her answer is that it has stalled in the US and fallen behind rates of upward mobility in the US, Sweden or Denmark.  According to Foroohar (and based on a Pew study), a male born in the 1970s into the bottom fifth of the wealth distribution had only a 17% chance of making it to the top wealth quintile.  And while 50% of young males in this low-wealth quintile remained stuck there in the US, it was only 30% in UK or 25% in Denmark and Sweden, so upward mobility was much higher in those nations.  [Swedish economist Markus Jantti led the research project that uncovered these numbers.]

Foroohar (after consulting experts from places like Goldman Sachs) says that China and other emerging countries are driving inequality by taking away good middle class US jobs.   Foroohar believes that the answer lies in more progressive tax rates (with fewer loopholes) and greater investments in public education (which is the engine of economic mobility).

Fareed Zakaria also has three pieces on this: “The Downward Path of Upward Mobility” (Wash. Post op-ed, 11/10/11), a CNN video entitled “Fix Education, Restore Social Mobility” (about how lack of investment in education causing stagnating upward mobility is at heart of Occupy Wall Street movement), and “When will we learn” (TIME, 11/14/11).

Bhaskar Mazumder, of the Chicago Fed, highlights research that he believes shows a decrease in US social mobility from 1980-1990 and then growing less rapidly from 1990-2000 (based on studies of brothers). Mazumder notes that mobility measures are by methodological approach “backward-looking” since they impose a several decade lag before one learns of corrosive influences in society for social mobility; he  notes  that “the gap in children’s academic performance between high- and low-income families has widened significantly over the last few decades. If this trend persists, it would point to reduced intergenerational economic mobility going forward.”

We have been doing work on the connection between income inequality and social inequality among youth (that exacerbates the test score gaps) and will report on that later, but suffice it say that we find a connection between the “blue inequality” (income inequality) and “red inequality” (the ability of college graduates to pass on advantages from a generation to another) that David Brooks writes about.

In November 2011, a variety of non-profit, corporate, academic and media leaders convened to discuss social mobility in the Opportunity Nation summit.  Opportunity Nation has released an Opportunity Index that enables you look state by state or county by county to see how that locality is doing in terms of economic opportunity. And you can see videos of some of the speakers here.  Rick Warren cited an eye-opening statistic: 25% of Anglo kids, 50% of Hispanic kids, & 75% of black kids are growing up today without a stable father in the home (these are out of wedlock births).  This work is picked up in Charles Murray’s Coming Apart and in Nick Kristoff’s “The White Underclass“.

And interestingly, even conservative media venues like the National Review and the FrumForum (here and here) are discussing the decline of social mobility as noted in “Harder for Americans to Rise From Lower Rungs“, citing Republican experts like John Bridgeland.  Even Presidential candidate Rick Santorum has admitted that social mobility up into the middle class is higher in Europe than in the US. Excerpt from Scott Winship’s piece in the National Review here:

The Economic Mobility Project/Brookings analyses break the parent and child generations into fifths on the basis of each generation’s income distribution. If being raised in the bottom fifth were not a disadvantage and socioeconomic outcomes were random, we would expect to see 20 percent of Americans who started in the bottom fifth remain there as adults, while 20 percent would end up in each of the other fifths. Instead, about 40 percent are unable to escape the bottom fifth. This trend holds true for other measures of mobility: About 40 percent of men will end up in low-skill work if their fathers had similar jobs, and about 40 percent will end up in the bottom fifth of family wealth (as opposed to income) if that’s where their parents were.

Is 40 percent a good or a bad number? On first reflection, it may seem impressive that 60 percent of those starting out in the bottom make it out. But most of them do not make it far out. Only a third make it to the top three fifths. Whether this is a level of upward mobility with which we should be satisfied is a question usefully approached by way of the following thought experiment: If you’re reading this essay, chances are pretty good that your household income puts you in one of the top two fifths, or that you can expect to be there at age 40. (We’re talking about roughly $90,000 for an entire household.) How would you feel about your child’s having only a 17 percent chance of achieving the equivalent status as an adult? That’s how many kids with parents in the bottom fifth around 1970 made it to the top two-fifths by the early 2000s. In fact, if the last generation is any guide, your child growing up in the top two-fifths today will have a 60 percent chance of being in the top two fifths as an adult. That’s the impact of picking the right parents — increasing the chances of ending up middle- to upper-middle class by a factor of three or four.

See somewhat related Social Capital blog piece on increased residential income segregation.

Read Paul Krugman’s excellent “We are the 99.9%” (NYT, 11/24/11)

Read Nick Kristof’s excellent piece “Occupy the Agenda” (NY Times, 11/19/11)

Listen to Steven Haider (Michigan State Univ. economist) on Michigan Public Radio (11/18/11) discussing the myth of upward mobility in America.

Other pieces on this topic:

TIME Magazine: “The Land of Opportunity” by Richard Stengel, 11/14/11

Washington Post-ABC News Poll: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/polls/postabcpoll_110311.html   [see questions 16-18]

December 2011 OECD report Divided We Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising on how inequality among OECD countries is at a record high over the past 30 years and demands action.

The reports that Zakaria uses to show that mobility is lower in US than in Europe are:
- OECD 2010 report: http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/2/7/45002641.pdf
- German Institute for the Study of Labor report (2006): http://ftp.iza.org/dp1938.pdf

- Professor Miles Corak (economist at Univ. of Ottawa) compared rates of mobility in a review of over 50 studies spanning nine countries.

- See Scott Winship’s testimony to Senate Budget Committee (Feb. 9, 2012) on inequality and social mobility, and see Jared Bernstein’s and Heather Boushey’s as well.

Two of most startling charts of testimony were one by CBO showing how the income of the top 1% is the one cohort that has done well over the last 40 years in the US economy:

And one showing that, unlike in most countries where progressive taxation is used to curb the excessive inequalities of the market and ease the distribution somewhat, the tax and transfer system in the US actually make inequality WORSE.

Michael Gerson on economic mobility

Flickr photo by ant.photo

George W.’s speechwriter has an Op-Ed noting that we should focus more on economic mobility than economic inequality and we couldn’t agree more:

Excerpt:

“Still, the most important measure of U.S. economic success is not income equality but social mobility. Economic inequality can be justified in a fluid society, in which economic advancement is a realistic goal. Economic inequality in the absence of economic mobility amounts to a class system in which the circumstances of birth are the main economic blessing or curse….

“There remains a considerable amount of economic mobility, upward and downward, in the middle class. But nearer the bottom of the income scale, upward mobility is weak and stuck. As a result, according to the Economic Mobility Project, the U.S. economy is less fluid than the economies of Canada, France, Germany or the Scandinavian countries.”Individual advancement is closely tied to educational achievement and family structure. An economy that rewards skills and other forms of human capital is not a good place to be a dropout with a child out of wedlock.

“Conservatives are correct that tax increases on the wealthy to fund entitlement commitments that go mainly to the elderly would do precious little to address this problem.

“Liberals are right that a combination of rising economic inequality (even if the rise is gradual) with stalled economic mobility is an invitation to destructive social resentments. Americans will accept unequal economic outcomes in a fair system. They object when the results seem rigged. That way lies the Bastille.

“So the question comes to liberals and conservatives: If social mobility is the goal, what are the solutions? What can be done to improve the quality of teachers in failing schools, to confront the high school dropout crisis, to encourage college attendance and completion, to reduce teen pregnancy, to encourage stable marriages, to promote financial literacy, to spark entrepreneurship?

“Both Democrats and Republicans should have something to contribute to the development of this agenda. Neither party, however, currently has much to say. And this is not likely to change until the discussion turns from equality to mobility.”

Read Michael Gerson, “Economic inequality is the wrong issue” (Washington Post Op-Ed, 11/4/2011)

Robert Putnam on economic mobility and Great Recession

Flickr photo by bupowski

Robert Putnam was on the NewsHour yesterday in a story by Paul Solman on how inequality and decreasing economic mobility are affecting Americans even as the economy modestly recovers out of the Great Recession.

Excerpt:

PAUL SOLMAN: So, the American dream — your kids will do better than you — neither you nor your kids think that that`s the case?

COOKIE SHEERS: No, we all feel stuck in a rut. You feel like you can`t move, you can’t grow, like you’re just at that edge of water where you can come up for air every few minutes, but never long enough to feel that you have accomplished something. You always have to go back down.

BOBBY HICKS: Like she says, I feel like, once I feel like I have reached that part where my nostrils can come out the top, life comes back and just steps right on my face and says: You know what? It’s not time for you to come up for air yet.

PAUL SOLMAN: The numbers support the stories. Economic inequality in America, widening steadily since 1980, grew during the financial crisis, with the top 5 percent of Americans owning 65 percent of national wealth by mid-2009, up from 62 percent two years before. The losers were the bottom 80 percent, whose share of wealth fell during the crisis. Nearly half had negative net worth by mid-2009….But, at least historically, there was always the very real hope of moving up, at least across generations.

ROBERT PUTNAM, Harvard University: That isn’t true anymore….So, one of our competitive advantages as a — as a society, which used to be that we were very mobile, and we were constantly getting new infusions of talent and so on at the top, and — and that people down near the bottom had a hope that, if they didn’t do well, their kids could do well in the past in America.

That a poor kid could grow up in a tenement, go off to city college, do well, and himself end up in the next generation pretty well-off, that’s what’s becoming less likely in America. And I think that undermines a crucial part of the American myth or the American dream or the American social contract.

PAUL SOLMAN: Adds economist Sam Bowles:

SAMUEL BOWLES, Santa Fe Institute: America is distinct in the extent to which inequality is inherited from generation to generation. The kids of rich parents have a strong tendency to be rich, and the kids of poor parents are very, very likely to be poor. That’s one of the things which I think Americans find most shocking. That’s a huge discrepancy from what we think of as the land of opportunity.

Even a college-education, the key ingredient in economic mobility, doesn’t seem to immunize Americans from these economic problems:

DENISE BARRANT: In our family, everybody is college-educated. Most of us have masters’. Myself, I’m unemployed. My brother is unemployed. People used to think it was a guarantee. It is not. To invest $200,000- plus in an education, with no guarantee that you have a job, is scary.

PAUL SOLMAN: As for Bobby Hicks’ job, it’s inequality, he says, that makes it possible.

BOBBY HICKS: In the security industry, you know, there is a demand for jobs, because the rich want to protect their assets.

PAUL SOLMAN: But those jobs are low-pay and low-prestige, despite the high stakes.

BOBBY HICKS: A pressure release valve for the domestic water in the building broke. And there was water flooding, and this was on the sixth floor. If their servers got wet, it would have wiped out the entire East Coast for this one particular company — and Bob, $9 an hour, to the rescue. Make the call, count on you, all right? But, if I screwed up, you’re gone.

Listen to NewsHour segment by Paul Solman “Many Americans Feel ‘Stuck in a Rut’ as Economy Improves but Inequality Grows” (3/24/11).

Note: the story is factually incorrect in claiming that Robert Putnam helped run Harvard’s Inequality Program.  He has never done that and Bruce Western runs Harvard’s Inequality Project currently, but Harvard’s Kennedy School Saguaro Seminar which Putnam leads has been undertaking a 4-5 year investigation of a growing youth social class gap.

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.”


Is a British Obama possible?

Obama '08 (photo by beebo wallace)
Obama ’08 (photo by beebo wallace)

Harvard and Manchester through the SCHMi collaboration released their findings about whether a British Obama is possible.  Broadly we found that substantial generational patterns of increased tolerance in both Britain and the U.S., whether related to attitudes towards a black boss or intermarriage or towards black politicians (in the US).  Robert Putnam (Harvard Professor and visiting professor at Univ. of Manchester) noted that: “Change is taking a similar form on both sides of the Atlantic: exactly as in the US, the generation of Britons uncomfortable with non-whites in positions of power or intimacy is gradually dying off, and being replaced by its more tolerant offspring….It is fair to add, however, that the smaller minority population in the UK, as well as the much shallower pool of black politicians and the more centralised political recruitment paths, still tends to work against black representation in Britain.”

There is an interesting article on these findings by Allegra Stratton “Britain ready for black prime minister” in today’s Guardian and in-depth piece called “Mixed Blessing” and an editorial “Geography of Race” by co-author of the forthcoming book Age of Obama, Tom Clark.

In addition, the BBC aired several pieces on the story (“Black prime minister likely to take decades” and Robert Putnam interview with the BBC).

One can find the underlying scholarly papers (on which the report draws) and a sample chapter of the book Age of Obama here.

Press release on this topic available here.

Background:

Social Change: a Harvard-Manchester Initiative (SCHMi) is a collaboration of Harvard University and the University of Manchester that seeks to understand the complex consequences of big societal changes, like the Industrial Revolution or the civil rights revolution, which require careful inter-disciplinary research to identify ways to maximize social benefits and minimize social costs. Much as the sharp declines in life expectancy in the train of the Industrial Revolution in the later 1800s spawned empirical research that uncovered the importance of clean water and sanitation and ultimately reversed the adverse health effects, so too SCHMi aims to spur careful research on large-scale social issues today and thus to foster social progress. Transatlantic comparison and transatlantic learning have long been pivotal to such efforts.

One objective of the SCHMi collaboration is to produce roughly annually a book or report for the informed public, comparing and contrasting the US and UK experiences on some major social issue. The first project, nearing now completion, is on diversity/immigration. We anticipate future reports on religion and public life, and on inequality. The fourth and final topic has not yet been determined, but will likely be either the social consequences of technology or the changing workplace.

Diversity is a critically important subject. In the opening decade of the 21st century immigration and racial diversity are high on both countries’ agendas, for both are undergoing rapid demographic change. But their starting points and trajectories are different, and the policy debates, while intertwined transatlantically, are also different. The Age of Obama (to come out in Fall 2009) compares the social, economic, demographic, and political consequences of immigration and racial diversity in the US and the UK. The work is unusually timely because many are now wondering whether there could be a British Obama.

The Age of Obama is written by Tom Clark, an experienced writer for The Guardian, and builds on substantive contributions from Professors Waters (Harvard), Fieldhouse (Manchester), Peach (Manchester-Oxford), Yaojun Li (Manchester), Daniel Hopkins (post-doc, Harvard Govt. Dept.), and Rob Ford (post-doc, Manchester sociology) with overall project direction being provided by Robert Putnam.

  • The underlying chapters are:1. Comparing Immigrant Integration in the US and the UK (based on research by Mary Waters)2. Ethnic and Racial Segregation in the US and Britain (based on research by Ceri Peach)3. Immigration and neighborhood diversity in the U.K. and the U.S.  Does diversity damage social capital? (based on research by Ed Fieldhouse and David Cutts)4. Socio-economic integration of immigrants in the US and UK (based on research by Yaojun Li)5. How levels of neighborhood immigration influence attitudes towards immigration in the U.S and the U.K and generational changes in the US and UK in attitudes toward race (based on research by Dan Hopkins and Rob Ford).