Thursday, January 05, 2012

What Happened to Upward Mobility?

We're all familiar with the mythos: the USA is the land of the meritocracy, not the aristocracy. The place where every boy can grow up to be president. Where the janitor can become the CEO.

The reality looks rather different. From the New York Times:

“It’s becoming conventional wisdom that the U.S. does not have as much mobility as most other advanced countries,” said Isabel V. Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution. “I don’t think you’ll find too many people who will argue with that.”

One reason for the mobility gap may be the depth of American poverty, which leaves poor children starting especially far behind. Another may be the unusually large premiums that American employers pay for college degrees. Since children generally follow their parents’ educational trajectory, that premium increases the importance of family background and stymies people with less schooling.

To put it a different way:

“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.”

Poor Americans are working their way up from lower bottom than other countries? Why isn't this front page news? Why aren't the presidential candidates currently invading NH talking about this?

Oh, wait. Here's why:

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.

The privileged have the power to protect their interests. The non-privileged just get trickled on. This is grim news, coming on the heels of the recent report showing that one in every two families has either fallen into poverty or qualifies as low income.

The best way to turn this around is to continue to push for more jobs, better pay, and stronger unions.

cross-posted at MainSt/

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