President Obama made strengthening the middle class and raising up the poor — restoring the “basic bargain” of prosperity to the majority of Americans — the centerpiece of his State of the Union speech last week. Achieving these goals in his second term as U.S. President is going to be an uphill effort and not only because of Republican opposition to his policies. Studies of inequality (economic and social) show that, even in the egalitarian societies of Scandinavia, social mobility is far more limited than we’d like to think, says the Economist.
The more unequal economies are, the less people are able to move up the economic ladder, Miles Corak, an University of Ottawa economist, has found. From studying the situations of fathers and sons, Corak discovered that, in some societies (the U.K., the U.S.), about 50 percent of income differences are due to differences in the previous generation.
That is, what you’re born into is what you’ll die with.
Who Your Ancestors Are Does Matter
In another study (pdf), Gregory Clark, University of California, Davis, economist, looked at unusual last names to track social mobility and found that “it may take as long as 300-500 years for high- and low-status families to produce descendants with equal chances of being in various parts of the income spectrum.”
Clark studied long-term mobility rates over centuries (1700-2012) in Sweden, which (in modern times) has seen “rapid social and economic mobility.” Sweden’s 17th century aristocrats took unusual last names (some held by 400 or fewer people in 2011), while highly-educated 18th-century Swedes took Latinized last names (such as Linnaeus and Celsius). Clark found that individuals with these last names have been over-represented in elite positions and that some 70-80 percent of economic advantage is transmitted down through the generations.
That is, “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps” and the sacrosanct notion of the American Dream amount to hopeful myths. Social mobility is actually “low and surprisingly constant across countries and eras,” the Economist observes adding that, in the U.K., the “introduction of universal secondary education [has] scarcely” altered intergenerational mobility.
It’s not just that (as a friend, a career caddy at very exclusive country clubs in New Jersey, once quipped) some people choose their parents well. They also do a pretty darn good job at choosing their grandparents and great-grandparents.
Higher Education: Not the Great Equalizer We Think It Is
In a recent New York Times op-ed, Joseph Stiglitz, a Novel laureate in economics, underscores that “the upwardly mobile American is becoming a statistical oddity”:
According to research from the Brookings Institution, only 58 percent of Americans born into the bottom fifth of income earners move out of that category, and just 6 percent born into the bottom fifth move into the top. Economic mobility in the United States is lower than in most of Europe and lower than in all of Scandinavia.
As factors for why America has ceased to be the “land of opportunity,” Stiglitz singles out (1) persistent discrimination against Latinos, African-Americans and women and (2) a “lack of equality and opportunity” in both “quantity and quality” of education.
As he writes, families higher up the economic rung can send their children to exclusive private schools or live in suburban communities with fewer environmental hazards. Their seemingly bottomless pockets provide “enriching experiences” such as music lessons and tutoring. But children from poorer, urban neighborhoods have little or none of this and, when they get to college, they continue to have fewer opportunities. Catching up can be a lot harder than anyone (well-meaning educators and politicians included) wishes to acknowledge.
Ultimately, college provides lower-economic students with a distressing ”Catch-22″ as “without a college education, they are condemned to a life of poor prospects. With a college education, they may be condemned to a lifetime of living at the brink” and paying back massive debt on student loans.
Stiglitz argues that the government needs to boldly step in and try to “level the playing field” as early as possible, by providing young mothers with health care and other supports (and, I would argue, by educating teenagers about contraception, so young women who aren’t yet old enough for a driver’s license do not find themselves pregnant) and also by making “universal access to higher education” far less difficult for those at the “bottom and middle.”
This is all good. But as Clark’s study suggests, a college education is not the great equalizer we’d like it to be, precisely because of the advantages that students from upper middle class and wealthier families already have access to.
It is a gloomy realization. But it is even more of a a reason to support President Obama’s ambitious plans to bolster the middle class and improve the circumstances of those of lower economic status; to create, yes, aggressive programs that level the playing field, in full knowledge that, if you’re born with a silver spoon in your mouth, you’re probably using the same one your great-grandfather did.
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