America’s Rags to Riches Narrative—Not so Much

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January 5, 2012; Source: New York Times | There is no question that the economy is the issue of the day, thanks in part to OWS nudging it out of the “class warfare” trap and into proud public discourse. And the question of income mobility is an important part of the call to action, so we were glad to see the New York Times chipping in with a review of the facts.

We hope that this does not come as news to most of you, but this nation’s organizing narrative as the land of unfettered opportunity has a few plot flaws. This article by Jason Parles in yesterday’s New York Times reiterates what many studies have previously shown: that mobility between classes in the United States is not as fluid as in Canada and Western Europe, and that, in fact, if you are born very poor or very rich in the USA, you are very likely to remain so.

Economist Miles Corak, at the University of Ottawa, reviewed more than fifty studies of mobility in nine countries, finally ranking Canada, Norway, Finland, and Denmark as having the highest levels of mobility, while the United States and Britain were among the lowest. For instance, Corak found that 22 percent of American men raised in the bottom 10 percent of income categories remained there, compared to 16 percent of Canadian men. Conversely, 26 percent of American men raised in the top 10 percent remained there in contrast to 18 percent of Canadian men.

This article suggests that education is a pivotal issue in this “stickiness” of class. People with more money are likely to be better educated, and the upper levels of the American economy “tilts” toward educated workers. Also mentioned as a factor is the waning of an organized labor presence. Finally, there is, in this country, an especially large gap between the highest- and lowest-income categories, which means there is much further to go when trying to move out of poverty. “The bottom fifth in the U.S. looks very different from the bottom fifth in other countries,” said Scott Winship of the Brookings Institution. “Poor Americans have to work their way up from a lower floor.”

Those working on economic justice and income disparity issues will naturally continue to use such stuff as fodder for their calls for a different economic future, but the article points out that even some unlikely campaigning voices are beginning to acknowledge mobility as the problem. Let’s make sure that the frame for the problem does not become mutilated in the translation.—Ruth McCambridge