Myth of American Economic Mobility
Clive Crook argues that it may be time to stop calling America the “land of opportunity.” Despite our sense that we live in a meritocracy, where hard work will pay off and sloth will be punished, “America stands lower in the ranking of income mobility than most of the countries whose data allow the comparison, scoring worse than Canada, all of the Scandinavian countries, and possibly even Germany and Britain (the data are imperfect, and different studies give slightly different results).”
The stickiness is at the top and the bottom. According to one much-cited study, for instance, more than 40 percent of American boys born into the poorest fifth of the population stay there; the figure for Britain is 30 percent, for Denmark just 25 percent. In America, more than in other advanced economies, poor children stay poor. Other data show that in America, more than in, say, Britain, rich children stay rich as well.
Crook cites inheritance, the growing coffers of elite universities, and local funding of primary and secondary schools as the prime culprits of said stickiness. Certainly, those things — especially the last — are important. His suggestion of an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit (a watered down version of Milton Friedman’s negative income tax) has merit.
Like many problems, though, this likely something that government intervention can shape only at the margins absent draconian measures.
Affluent parents are more likely to be good parents in a wide variety of ways. Certainly, they can ensure that their kids have adequate nutrition. They’re more likely to value education and ensure their children do their homework and have the necessary supplies. They are more likely to be able to help with said homework or to be able to afford tutoring assistance to keep their kids from falling behind. They’ll create an expectation in their children that they’ll go on to college and have meaningful careers rather than just jobs to make ends meet. They’re apt to have more time to spend with their kids and to have the wherewithal to have them participate in enriching after school and vacation activities.
At the upper end of the scale, they can send their kids off to prep school and afford the tuition at great universities. They’ll be more likely to know wealthy people in positions to mentor their college age children, get them internships, and a decent job when they get out of school. If that first job comes with an incredibly meager salary, they’re able to subsidize their young adult children while they pay their dues.
Very few of those advantages can be leveled by government interference that any but the Far Left would consider reasonable.