I’ve had economic mobility on my mind this week because it was one of the topics that came up during my interview with Richard Fisher. I'm still transcribing it, so I won't quote from it, but to summarize: it was observed that although the United States is in some respects less mobile than other western democracies with market economies, the American system does allow for occasional bouts of spectacular upward mobility--the phenomenon we summarize by saying that in the United States, any child can grow up to be president. 

People who believe that these phenomena are related generally give two explanations. The first is that America’s relatively low taxes allow people more latitude to look out for themselves, and give businesses more freedom to spend and invest, even if the approach means that America’s public-sector safety net is bound to be skimpy. The second (more normative) explanation is that welfare systems create a habit of dependency, whereas America’s stingy approach to social services means that we’re lean and wily, and unusually equipped to make something of ourselves.

This strikes many progressives as harsh and unfeeling, but millions of Americans think this this is true because that’s what their experience has been, and as Fisher was arguing, it’s not necessarily true that a lean public sector is worse for working people. Texas (which is to the United States as the United States is to Britain on these kinds of comparisons) has pronounced income inequality, but the most recent round of Census data found that it’s one of the few states where median household incomes rose in 2011, and economists at the Dallas Fed have found that Texas is creating middle-income jobs at a greater rate than the United States as a whole.

Whether the American system is “better” than a safer, more predictable, more statist approach is a philosophical question, but in any case, this is a deal we we made, as a people, a long time ago. John Adams described it in 1780 in a letter to his wife Abigail: "I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain."

With that in mind, I wohighly recommend Jason DeParle’s story, in the New York Times, about three women from Galveston--the “triplets,” as they were known at their high school, because they were so close--who were determined to break the cycle, took the logical steps to that effect, made it to college, and then fell short. "With little guidance from family or school officials, college became a leap that they braved without a safety net,” writes DeParle:

"The story of their lost footing is also the story of something larger — the growing role that education plays in preserving class divisions. Poor students have long trailed affluent peers in school performance, but from grade-school tests to college completion, the gaps are growing. With school success and earning prospects ever more entwined, the consequences carry far: education, a force meant to erode class barriers, appears to be fortifying them."

In other words, climbing the ladder is getting harder than it used to be, for economic reasons rather than social ones (like bias) or legal ones (like employment discrimination). DeParle cites a number of reasons why: the cost of a university education, for one thing, is getting more expensive, and the structural economy has changed since Adams’ day: if you're in the second generation and you want to go into agriculture, you can't just grab a roll of barb wire and fence yourself some farmland in Oklahoma.

What DeParle's story illustrates so well, however, is that people could also use some kind of backstop, because inevitably something’s going to go wrong: a car breaks down, or a natural disaster hits the island, or suddenly there’s a baby involved, etc. Over time, a person's capacity to bounce back from these things increases--you finish your education or training, or you build up a nest egg, or you start to qualify for better jobs--but for young people, especially, the consequences of early setbacks tend to linger. 

This brings us to what DeParle politely calls “changes in family structure, which have left fewer low-income students with the support of two-parent homes”--financial support, but also emotional support (as when parents advocate for their children's interests) and logistical guidance. As America's public-sector safety net is small relative to what we see in other rich countries, people have historically relied on ad-hoc personal safety nets as a supplement, and “traditional” family structures have been one of the major hedges against insecurity and poverty for many Americans since the beginning of time (1776), though not the only one. (I would like to think that this is one of the reasons that social conservatives are so exercised about “the decline of the family," although I’m uncomfortable with that way of putting it because “the decline of the family" is pretty closely tied to things like "women’s rights,” etc., which I support.) Given all of this we would do well to keep an eye out for alternative ways to supplement the safety net, whether from the government, the private sector, civil society, churches, or other voluntary or informal arrangements. In the absence of reliable bulwarks, the ladder is going to get more slippery. At stake is equality of opportunity, not just equality of outcomes. 

12/25/2012 04:27

I read the same Times article and reacted similarly. I am also uncomfortable with the anti-feminist implications of the "decline of the family," but I sometimes wonder if labor mobility (for example) isn't a big factor in the erosion of multi-generational households and the support networks that go with them. I was deeply impressed, as a teenager, when I entered a house in Osaka and was greeted by three generations of a single family, all of whom lived above grandma's store. Economic necessity is driving Americans back into multi-generational households; I wonder if there's a way to make them work that doesn't depend on enforcing norms from a more patriarchal era. Feels like an area of "solutions journalism" that could use more investigation.

12/25/2012 07:52

I think you're right, Mims. Geographic mobility (and in particular labor mobility) was a cause of this erosion too and one that preceded the sexual revolution--that's why Social Security was created (in 1935). When I was drafting the post I was thinking about 'The Adventures of Augie March'...there's a fake grandmother who lives with the Marches because her adult sons would rather pay her board than have her live with them--although I'm hesitant to recommend that book because it's almost incomprehensible.

I guess we could spin out a whole range of reasons why America has an arguably idiosyncratic emphasis on the nuclear family: no useful occupations for the elderly on the frontier (and little need for their moral/social influence)? The suburbs were never designed to include mother-in-law suites? Our preoccupation with eternal agelessness means that Americans resist dividing the category of 'adults' into multi-generational systems?


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