Is Social Mobility Overrated?
A pretty good piece in the New York Times today about social mobility in America or, more accurately, the lack thereof. While the article cites the same studies and charts about European vs. American mobility that most people with a passing interest have already seen, it also adds some welcome nuance in just where along the economic spectrum this increasing lack of mobility is concentrated. Like most things in life, it’s not a fair or equal distribution:
Even by measures of relative mobility, Middle America remains fluid. About 36 percent of Americans raised in the middle fifth move up as adults, while 23 percent stay on the same rung and 41 percent move down, according to Pew research. The “stickiness” appears at the top and bottom, as affluent families transmit their advantages and poor families stay trapped….
What’s more, the piece does a good job of, in broad strokes, outlining just why it is that Americans at the bottom find it so inordinately hard — for a wealthy, developed nation, that is — to climb their way up (notice the almost laughable amount of information condensed into this first graf):
Poor Americans are…more likely than foreign peers to grow up with single mothers. That places them at an elevated risk of experiencing poverty and related problems, a point frequently made by Mr. Santorum, who surged into contention in the Iowa caucuses. The United States also has uniquely high incarceration rates, and a longer history of racial stratification than its peers.
“The bottom fifth in the U.S. looks very different from the bottom fifth in other countries,” said Scott Winship, a researcher at the Brookings Institution, who wrote the article for National Review. “Poor Americans have to work their way up from a lower floor.”
A second distinguishing American trait is the pay tilt toward educated workers. While in theory that could help poor children rise — good learners can become high earners — more often it favors the children of the educated and affluent, who have access to better schools and arrive in them more prepared to learn….
The United States is also less unionized than many of its peers, which may lower wages among the least skilled, and has public health problems, like obesity and diabetes, which can limit education and employment.
Perhaps another brake on American mobility is the sheer magnitude of the gaps between rich and the rest — the theme of the Occupy Wall Street protests, which emphasize the power of the privileged to protect their interests. Countries with less equality generally have less mobility.
It’s interesting that the journo here put the OWS-approved explanation last; I’d imagine that, simply because of what’s dominated the news and the blogosphere for the past few months, many of us would think most immediately about the wealth accumulated by the .01%.
But in response to the article, Matt Yglesias raises an issue I’d not yet thought of (at least not in these terms) and that I think is pretty fascinating. He claims that conservatives once denied the mobility problem but nowadays instead emphasize that absolute rather than relative mobility is most important. The difference between the two might be obvious; but in case it’s not, the Times uses Reihan Salam of The Daily and The National Review as a representative of this strain of conservative thought:
Skeptics caution that the studies measure “relative mobility” — how likely children are to move from their parents’ place in the income distribution. That is different from asking whether they have more money. Most Americans have higher incomes than their parents because the country has grown richer.
Some conservatives say this measure, called absolute mobility, is a better gauge of opportunity. A Pew study found that 81 percent of Americans have higher incomes than their parents (after accounting for family size). There is no comparable data on other countries….
Mr. Salam recently wrote that relative mobility “is overrated as a social policy goal” compared with raising incomes across the board. Parents naturally try to help their children, and a completely mobile society would mean complete insecurity: anyone could tumble any time.
Anyway, Yglesias wonders whether or not it’s true that progressives — if they really stopped and thought about it — would actually agree with Salam:
At a minimum, I think speaking in these terms might help clarify the debate a bit. My suspicion, living and working in mostly progressive circles, is that most of the people upset about “inequality” are actually bothered by what they see asmissed opportunities to raise living standards at the bottom or at the median. But it’s not totally clear. There’s a lot of ideological diversity on the left, and perhaps some people are in fact saying that it would be a good tradeoff to make America more equal even if that meant lower absolute incomes for middle class and poor families. But I don’t think that’s really something most of the people who say they’re bothered by inequality are bothered by.
My instinct is that Yglesias is right, and that I’m one such progressive liberal who’d rather have the poor living better than the rich living worse. Now, I’m not so sure this really changes in any tangible way how liberals should operate in today’s politics. I think most of those who have signed-up at least in part with the Occupy Movement have come to the conclusion that the wealthy can’t have such an enormous leg-up on the poor because, when they do, the political system becomes provincial and corrupt.
But to “clarify the debate,” as Yglesias says, would still be useful. For one thing, if the left and the right can at least superficially agree to desiring the same results, it’ll become much easier to see who among us — on both sides — are truly interested in raising the standard of living for the poor.