The Mobility Myth

by James Surowiecki, The New Yorker, March 3, 2014

Since at least the days of Horatio Alger, a cornerstone of American thinking has been the hope of social mobility—the idea that, as Lawrence Samuel put it in a history of the American dream, anyone can, “through dedication and with a can-do spirit, climb the ladder of success.” In recent years, though, plenty of Americans have come to believe that, as President Obama said in his State of the Union address, “upward mobility has stalled.” So it was a surprise recently when a team of economists from Harvard and Berkeley released a comprehensive study showing that mobility in the U.S. hasn’t fallen over the past twenty years at all. “Like many people, we thought mobility would have declined,” Raj Chetty, one of the researchers on the project, told me. “But what we found was that kids born in the early nineteen-nineties had the same chances of climbing up the income ladder as kids born in the seventies.” Even more striking, when the researchers looked at studies tracking economic mobility going back to the fifties, they concluded that it had remained relatively stable over the entire second half of the twentieth century.

That sounds like good news, but there’s a catch: there wasn’t that much mobility to begin with. According to Chetty, “Social mobility is low and has been for at least thirty or forty years.” This is most obvious when you look at the prospects of the poor. Seventy per cent of people born into the bottom quintile of income distribution never make it into the middle class, and fewer than ten per cent get into the top quintile. Forty per cent are still poor as adults. What the political scientist Michael Harrington wrote back in 1962 is still true: most people who are poor are poor because “they made the mistake of being born to the wrong parents.” The middle class isn’t all that mobile, either: only twenty per cent of people born into the middle quintile ever make it into the top one. And although we think of U.S. society as archetypally open, mobility here is lower than in most European countries.

This wasn’t always the case….

Continue reading at by James Surowiecki, The New Yorker

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