Advancing in the Melting Pot

Ron Haskins seeks to answer the question of whether the United States of America is really the land of bootstrap advancement and personal opportunity (subscription required). In a nutshell, he does find economic advancement from generation to generation, but by the numbers, it appears that the economic quintile of one’s parents is more determinative in America than in other Western countries.
But he points out a factor that is too often lost, and that (I’d argue) applies to a wide variety of comparisons. Healthcare comes to mind.

One of the annoying features of many media stories and political speeches about the evidence reviewed here is that the popular accounts make it seem that impersonal social forces, especially the American economy and government policy, entirely determine the opportunities new generations will find as they grow up. Leaving aside the fact that, as we have seen, the American economy has been exceptionally productive, and the fact that the federal government alone spends $750 billion (5.7 percent of GDP) on mobility-enhancing programs, the critics hardly mention the vital role of parental and personal responsibility.
The fact that personal responsibility plays a major role in mobility and economic well-being can be easily demonstrated. The three basic rules of success in America are that young people should finish their educations (at least high school), get jobs, and get married before having children. Computations based on Census data that my Brookings Institution colleague Isabel Sawhill performed for our recent book, Creating an Opportunity Society, show that kids who follow these rules have a 74 percent chance of winding up in the middle class (defined as income of $50,000 or more) and a mere 2 percent chance of winding up in poverty ($17,200 for a family of three in 2008). By contrast, young people who violate all three of these rules have only a 7 percent chance of winding up in the middle class and a 76 percent chance of winding up in poverty.

One could say that the U.S. has built a structure for opportunity and given everybody the rulebook, but it does not force citizens to follow it. Indeed, progressive policies over the past century have created unhealthy incentive to stay put, economically, and the identity politics and political correctness of the past few decades have sealed the fates of too many.
So we’re back to the left/right divide. One side looks at a lack of universal economic opportunity, regardless of personal outlook, and insists that the American system be replaced with something centrally planned and designed to guarantee individual results. (Put aside the clear fantasy of that objective.) The other side replies that costless cultural changes and the acceptance of some degree of risk will yield better results for the individual and for our shared culture and economy.

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Stuart
Stuart
11 years ago

Justin, I think you hide the facts inside all those words.
The facts say that an American has LESS opportunity than those in many other parts of the world – a fact which has changed only recently!
A lot of factors are at play making us sink, but among them are:
1. Tax cuts which are for the very wealthy, often at the expense of the middle class and poor
2. Lack of minimum wages to keep up with basic inflation – of course, low min. wages are championed by the right!
3. Lack of job portability – so folks cannot take a chance due to losing health care, etc.
4. Anti-unionism – the idea of a fair wage has been supplanted by the idea of pressure to keep all wages as low as possible (using illegals, offshoring, etc.).
5. Lack of higher education – a family which can hardly pay the bills cannot properly educate their children.
I’m sure there are even more factors involved, but the stats speak for themselves. This unfortunately means that the talk point about American being the land of most opportunity for ALL is no longer true. It is, however, still of great opportunity for those who start of with a lot.
For instance, if you have 10 million here it is pretty easy to make the second 10 and get to 20.

Robert Balliot
11 years ago

Spikes in opportunity and development in the US during the last century coincided with the GI Bill. Advanced education was no longer only for the wealthy. Brilliant minds were able to attend school and contribute up to their potential to innovate and expand the economy.
Dollar for dollar, the GI Bill was one of the best investments ever made in the US economy.

Justin Katz
11 years ago

Robert,
But that was arguably a limited-duration opportunity. Society has adjusted to that reality, and higher education is now a deflated asset, and the former merit-based fruits of higher education have become less merit based with the increase of people who can accomplish the tasks.
That’s not to say, obviously, that education doesn’t continue to be valuable, but it’s not the differentiator or source of an easy spike that it once was.

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
11 years ago

Stuart writes:
“5. Lack of higher education – a family which can hardly pay the bills cannot properly educate their children.”
It has been proven, time and again, that concerned parents are the leading factors in their kids achievements. How else do you explain all of the Cambodian kids who are the leader achievers in Boston schools.
We are never more than one generation away from barbarism.

joe bernsteib
joe bernsteib
11 years ago

Robert-the GI Bill was great.I got my degree that way.I didn’t see it as a handout-more of a payback.
Today’s veterans better not be overlooked by these people in DC.
Strangely enough,the BEST VA Secretary was the late Jesse Brown,appointed by Clinton,Even a turd like Clinton can do something right.

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