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14 Mobility Must-Reads of 2014

Client James Riley greets volunteer Jim Curtis at the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry in Indianapolis (REUTERS/Aaron Bernstein).

Social mobility has remained a hot topic through 2014. Faith in the American Dream of upward mobility continues to be eroded by the shock of the recession, a sluggish recovery, and growing evidence that relative mobility rates are flat. Political interest in promoting opportunity has remained strong.

We know you want to keep up with this debate, so here’s a guide from the team at Social Mobility Memos to the must-read books and papers of the year, in alphabetical order. And just in case you don’t have time to read them all, we have also provided our own brief summaries.

1. Bottlenecks: A New Theory of Equal Opportunity by Joseph Fishkin

For our money, Bottlenecks provides one of the most important philosophical treatments of equal opportunity for decades. (We ran a series on the book, available here). Fishkin describes and criticizes a ‘unitary’ opportunity structure, marked by bottlenecks: “narrow places through which people must pass if they hope to reach a wide range of opportunities that fan out on the other side.” He calls for ‘opportunity pluralism’ – with more, and wider, paths to a more diverse range of successful lives. Beautifully written, too.

2. Capital in the Twenty-first Century by Thomas Piketty

Piketty (do pronounce his name properly in order to be taken seriously) delivered the year’s blockbuster, doorstopper work of political economy. From a mobility perspective, the most important sections are those on the inheritance of status through financial and/or human capital. Piketty writes: ‘A society structure by the hierarchy of wealth has been replaced by a society whose structure relies almost entirely on the hierarchy of labor and human capital’. He cites American TV shows (House, Bones, The West Wing) as evidence of a belief in the moral virtue of learning, brains and hard work. But he also points out that wealth inequality has far from disappeared – and may be on the verge of rapid widening again. What prospects for meritocracy – real or imagined – then?

3. Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage by Isabel V. Sawhill

Our own Belle Sawhill surveys how changes in the family have affected child wellbeing. She argues that the new class divide in family formation calls for new policy solutions: turning “drifters” into “planners” through policies that reduce unintended pregnancies, such as expanding access to long acting-reversible contraception, or LARCs. Among other reviews, The Economist declared the book ‘clear, concise and admirably fair-minded.’

4. Income Inequality, Social Mobility, and the Decision to Drop Out of High School’ by Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine

Disadvantaged students living in areas of high inequality and low mobility are more likely to drop out of high school than their peers living in low inequality, high mobility areas. Why? After a forensic examination of the data, Kearney (a Brookings colleague) and Levine argue that inequality damages the aspirations of young adults, and especially boys, through what they label a ‘desperation effect’.

5. ‘Is the United States Still a Land of Opportunity? Recent Trends in Intergenerational Mobility’ by Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline, Emmanuel Saez, and Nicholas Turner

If you read one academic paper on economic opportunity this year, read this. Doing justice to the idea of ‘big data’, Chetty and his team bring millions of U.S. tax records to bear on a single question: “has social mobility (in terms of relative income mobility) declined since the 70s?” Answer: no, it’s been flat. After finishing this piece, pick up their highly influential companion piece from 2013 about geographic differences in economic mobility; equally good.

6. Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America by Andrew Cherlin

This new book from Andrew Cherlin, a veteran analyst of marital trends, examines the ways in which a changing economy – one with less plentiful jobs for lower skilled workers-- has led to the decline of the working-class family. In an admirably even-handed treatment, Cherlin stresses the importance of improving educational opportunities and strengthening the labor market if we want to bring back family stability.

7. Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge for American Education  by Gregory Duncan and Richard Murnane

A well-researched and extensive look at how to improve schools to best help students from poor families, especially in terms of improving their chances of going to college or attaining vocational skills. The chances of greater mobility are vanishingly small unless there is greater equity in the education system: this volume, from two leading lights from the education field, offers a clear-eyed diagnosis along with practical solutions – with star billing given to Boston’s pre-K program, Chicago’s charter schools, and New York’s Small Schools of Choice.

8. Saving Horatio Alger: Equality, Opportunity, and the American Dream by Richard Reeves

Another one from our own team: Richard Reeves turns the Brookings Essay into a multi-media examination of the idea of opportunity in the United States, as fictionalized by Horatio Alger. As he argues: “Many countries support the idea of meritocracy, but only in America is equality of opportunity a virtual national religion, reconciling individual liberty—the freedom to get ahead and “make something of yourself”—with societal equality.” Only have three minutes? Check out the accompanying video, using Lego bricks to illustrate relative mobility rates:

9. Spheres of Influence: The Social Ecology of Racial and Class Inequality by Douglas Massey and Stefanie Brodmann

Like data? You’ll love this. Using a wealth of empirical sources, the authors examine the complex connection between class gaps and race gaps in the United States. Across a range of dimensions – income, wealth, earnings, family formation, education, health and so on – a strong picture emerges: gaps by race are hugely amplified by the effects of social class. To understand the processes of social stratification, we need to look at race and class together, rather than in isolation.

10. ‘The Economics of Human Development and Social Mobility’ by James J. Heckman And Stefano Mosso

Heckman continues to lead the field of skill development economics and this latest paper, co-authored with Mosso, is one of his most important yet. Heckman sets out a ‘technology of skills development’, based on three important multiplicities: ‘(1) multiple periods in the life cycle of childhood and adulthood…(2) multiple skills for both parents and children which extend traditional notions about the skills required for success in life, and (3) multiple forms of investment.” The key is to provide ‘scaffolding’ for skill development, one that recognizes the dynamic nature of skills development. (Heckman also provided a short version of his argument here for our Character and Opportunity essay series.)

11. The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood by Karl L. Alexander and Doris Entwisle

While other authors were using big data to examine the sorry state of social mobility across America, this Johns Hopkins duo dug deeper, revealing just how hard—and rare—it is for low-income people to break into the middle class, through a vivid statistical portrait of a cohort of Baltimore’s children over three decades. A real contribution comes from the qualitative depiction of the ways in which racial discrimination, both historical and ongoing, affect children today. (Alexander also blogged for us: ‘The Roots of Poverty are Many and Deep’).

12. ‘The Science of Inequality’ May 23, 2014 issue of Science Magazine

Ever wonder what econophysicists think of inequality? (Or indeed, just what econophysicists are?) Learn how income distributions reflect the second law of thermodynamics in this special issue of Science. You’ll also be introduced to the ‘top 1%’ in ancient Rome and an overview of some of the more typical issues related to mobility such as the skills gap and the intergenerational transmission of poverty. Great to see the connections between the social science of mobility with other scientific approaches.

13. The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility by Gregory Clark

Though at times controversial for its conclusions about the inheritance of advantage – certainly we had our concerns, outlined here - this book provides a new method for measuring social mobility: surnames as an indicator of mobility across many generations. Clark’s unhappy conclusion – that intergenerational mobility is stable and low – is partnered with a happier policy solution: simply reduce inequalities between the top and the bottom.

14. ‘Women’s Work: The Economic Mobility of Women Across a Generation’ from Pew Charitable Trusts

Pew attempted to fill an important void in empirical studies of women’s economic mobility by creating more accurate earnings comparisons between parent-child pairs. Compared to the previous generation, women not only have higher median hourly wages but are also working more hours, resulting in significant generational gains. This is not to say, however, that women have caught up with men, including on the mobility front (see our blog on this here.)

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