Americans are pie in the sky regarding economic and social mobility

January 18, 2011 | By | Reply More

Based surveys by the Brookings Institute, Americans fervently want to believe that hard work pays off in America. They believe that you are not locked into a particular strata of social and economic mobility by the lot of your parents. Yet the evidence doesn’t bear this out.

While cross-country comparisons of relative mobility rely on data
and methodologies that are far from perfect, a growing number of economic studies have found that the United States stands out as having less, not more, inter-generational mobility than do Canada and several European countries. American children are more likely than other children to end up in the same place on the income distribution as their parents. Moreover, there is emerging evidence that mobility is particularly low for Americans born into families at the bottom of the earnings or income distribution.

The truth is that the United States is a low-mobility country:

In the United States and the United Kingdom, about half (50 percent) of parental earnings advantages are passed onto sons. If trends hold consistent, it would take an average of six generations for family economic advantage to disappear in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Paul Krugman sums it up: “[T]he right is winning economic debates because people believe, wrongly, that there’s something inherently moral about free-market outcomes.” We Americans are dreamers, even when it blinds us to the need for real change. “American children are more likely than other children to end up in the same place on the income distribution as their parents.” The real numbers contained in the linked report are real eye-openers.

All of this was predictable.

The Economist wonders where the anger is:

It’s striking how little inchoate public rage has actually boiled to the surface in the rich world. Rising inequality, especially at the top end, combined with stagnating middle class incomes, has been a feature of the world for at least the past ten years. It’s been two years since the biggest bail-outs and the rise toward double-digit unemployment. And the anger is…where? Europeans are demonstrating against budget cuts, but these are rarely explicitly directed at national plutocrats. In America, the language of the angriest is very similar to that of the plutocrats themselves. Indeed, the complaint that today’s elite lack the noblesse oblige of the aristocrats of old, and are therefore risking public anger, seems to badly misread American public opinion. The middle class doesn’t want hand-outs from condescending rich people. They want moralistic language and complaints about deficits.


Category: American Culture, Economy

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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