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A New Federal Policy Architecture to Promote Social Mobility

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

Right now in Washington, it's all fiscal cliffs and debt ceilings. But there is a slower-burn crisis taking place in the US: the quiet decline of social mobility. Harvard academic Robert Putnam has warned that we are heading towards a “mobility cliff,” with affluent kids all but guaranteed a comfortable adult life and the poorest kids likely to remain stuck on the bottom rungs. Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins have vividly described the lack of mobility in the U.S. The opportunity gaps start at conception, widen through K-12, and harden during the transition to adulthood. Horatio Alger is not dead, but he is pretty sick. 

To say that promoting mobility is a complex task would be a wild understatement. A vast array of economic, social, cultural and individual factors are at work, to different degrees, across the entire life course – influencing an equally wide canvas of outcomes, from education to character to fertility. Promoting intergenerational mobility is not a policy agenda for the faint-hearted. There are no quick or easy solutions.

But it is wrong to be fatalistic. There are policies proven to narrow gaps. If they are applied consecutively, one brick on top of another, their effects are likely to amplified. And other nations, even those with similar levels of income inequality to the U.S. – such as Canada and Australia – have higher rates of intergenerational mobility. Improving rates of mobility is hard, but not impossible. Given the economic and social consequences of a more stratified society, we cannot simply shrug our shoulders.

A small but important first step would be to create a Federal “policy architecture” to properly track trends in mobility, and evaluate the impact of policies. The UK Government, explicitly committed to a mobility goal, has created a annual dashboard of “leading indicators” of mobility. My former boss, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, has also created an independent commission to report annually on progress towards greater social mobility.

Of course this kind of policy architecture would not promote mobility. But it would create a shared understanding of the facts, and a foundation for developing policy. Back in the 1970s, Brookings called for the creation of an independent agency within the legislative branch of government, to forecast the public finances and estimate the fiscal impact of legislation or proposed policies. The Congressional Budget Office was born. Something similar is now needed for opportunity: say a Congressional Mobility Office? So that if our politicians are able to look beyond today's cliffs and ceilings, and embrace the challenge of promoting opportunity, they'll have a better idea where to start.