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.