Economy Policy Subject-Specific

Economic Mobility: So Much For Horatio Alger

The Brookings Institution has just released a new book-length study on economic mobility in the United States, and the findings are pretty depressing. Even Stuart Butler, a Heritage Institute scholar I worked with as editor of the Atlantic Community, has difficulty putting a positive spin on the situation when asked to comment on the Brookings study:

“It does seem in America now that for people at very bottom it’s more difficult to move up than we might have thought or might have been true in the past.”

No kidding. I wrote about this subject back in November:

A seemingly high level of income mobility supports the argument that America is still the land of opportunity, to the exclusion of all others: that there is something unique about this country that rewards entrepreneurship and risk-taking. But is that mythical America still around, if it ever was? …If the U.S. economy is so excitingly dynamic, why do children in Canada and Europe have a better chance of surpassing their parents’ incomes?

At the time of writing, there was still resistance to the idea that the U.S. was entering a recession. Now that the economy is looking bleaker, major media outlets are pulling fewer punches, and covering more bad news. The New York Times headline for the Brookings news, “Higher Education Gap May Slow Economic Mobility,” is shown next to a graphic showing that “a person born into a poor family who graduates from college has a 19 percent chance of entering the top fifth of earners in adulthood.”

The fight now will be over the reasons that this is happening. But at least we’re starting to see agreement that economic mobility is declining, and the left and right can argue over how best to fix it.

More recent studies on economic mobility in the U.S. and elsewhere: