Creating an Opportunity Society

About the Book | What Haskins and Sawhill Are Saying | Ideas in the News | Recent Reviews | More Information | Events | About the Authors

About the Book

Americans believe economic opportunity is as fundamental a right as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. More concerned about a level playing field for all, they worry less about the growing income and wealth disparity in our country. Creating an Opportunity Society examines economic opportunity in the United States and explores how to create more of it, particularly for those on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.

Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill propose a concrete agenda for increasing opportunity that is cost effective, consistent with American values, and focuses on improving the lives of the young and the disadvantaged.

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What Haskins and Sawhill are Saying

Featured Article
America Needs More Economic Mobility
Ron Haskins & Isabel V. Sawhill, March 29, 2010

Although the growth of income inequality has received lots of public attention in recent years, public policy should focus instead on expanding economic opportunity. Of the numerous advantages of concentrating on opportunity, two stand out. One is public support. Americans are less concerned about inequality than economic opportunity. The popular reading of the American Dream is not that America guarantees success to all, but that America tries to ensure equal opportunity so that hard work and initiative pay off. The second advantage is that new legislation will be more likely to win support if it is framed in a way that is popular with both political parties. In our new book, Creating an Opportunity Society, we lay out an agenda of policies aimed at improving education, encouraging work, and strengthening families. We argue that this opportunity-enhancing agenda is one that most people, regardless of political affiliation, can endorse.

Some might think that America already presents people with lots of opportunity to get ahead. But it turns out that you need to pick your parents well. True, there is considerable mobility from one generation to the next, but the American economy tends to help those at the top stay there while making it difficult for those at the bottom to move up. Kids from families in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution are nearly five times as likely to wind up in the bottom 20 percent as kids from families in the top 20 percent. Similarly, children from other advanced countries are less likely to be stuck at the bottom of the income distribution than children in the U.S.

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Ideas in the News

  • Can the Middle Class be Saved?, Atlantic Monthly
    September, 2011
    In their 2009 book, Creating an Opportunity Society, Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill write that while most Americans believe that opportunity is widespread in the United States, and that success is primarily a matter of individual intelligence and skill, the reality is more complicated.
  • The Upward Mobility Gap, The Los Angeles Times
    January 2, 2011
    Can anything improve this troubling picture? Actually, yes. If we focus on increasing opportunity for the poor, there's plenty that can be done — beginning with education. Brookings economists Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill studied the noneconomic components of poverty and came up with a rule. "If young people do three things — graduate from high school, get a job, and get married and wait until they're 21 before having a baby — they have an almost 75% chance of making it into the middle class," Haskins said. Think of it as a stool with three legs: jobs, family and education. Government programs can help strengthen all three.
  • The Economic Debate We Should Be Having, The Washington Post
    December 14, 2010
    Economic redistribution can meet some basic needs. We provide food stamps to relieve hunger or vouchers to make housing more affordable. But social equality is not achieved through redistributing cash. "Our research," argue Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution, "shows that if you want to avoid poverty and join the middle class in the United States, you need to complete high school (at a minimum), work full time and marry before you have children. If you do all three, your chances of being poor fall from 12 percent to 2 percent."
  • A Simple Calculation: Solve for Poverty, The Baltimore Sun
    August 21, 2010
    [Sawhill] pointed me to an astonishing chart in a recent book she wrote with Ron Haskins, "Creating an Opportunity Society." Crunching census, income and other data, they found that of those who adhered to the holy trio of finishing high school, keeping a job and delaying parenthood, only 2 percent ended up poor.
  • Why Sharing the Wealth Isn't Enough, The Washington Post
    August 6, 2010
    As the rungs of the economic ladder grow farther apart, it's not surprisingly becoming harder to move up. Recent work by Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution suggests that rising inequality in the U.S. economy is leading to lower mobility. Sawhill and Haskins found that while people born into the middle class continue to move up and down the ladder, the top and the bottom rungs are becoming much "stickier," with those born there most likely to remain there. As a result, by some measures, the United States now has less class mobility than Canada, Germany and France. "The idea that equality of opportunity is a distinctly American strength is a myth," they conclude.
  • Upper Bound, The Economist
    April 15, 2010
    Family background is not insurmountable, explain Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution. In particular, earning a degree and marrying before having children can help someone climb to a higher rung. … Ms Sawhill and Mr Haskins argue for a drastic shift in federal priorities: rather than pay for the consumption of the old, America should invest in the productivity of the young. Reducing entitlement programmes will be tricky, to say the least. But stagnant rates of mobility risk turning the American dream to delusion.
  • Reflections on the American Dream, Financial Times blog, by Clive Crook
    February 19, 2010
    Back in November I wrote glowingly in a column for the FT about Creating an Opportunity Society, a new book by Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins. Earlier this week I attended a dinner with other journalists, scholars, and policy-makers to talk over some of its ideas. The conversation (off the record, in any event) was frustrating, because the budgetary obstacles to any action requiring outlays are so severe at the moment. If nothing else, though, it moved me to recommend the book again. It’s the best thing of its kind I’ve read for a long time.
  • The Recession Generation, Newsweek, by Rana Foroohar
    January 9, 2010
    The situation could get even uglier if, as many predict, a depressed post-crisis landscape forces Americans to let go of the mythology of upward mobility. As Brookings fellows Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins point out in their new book, Creating an Opportunity Society, this myth hasn't been true for some time: by international standards, intergenerational social mobility in the U.S. has been falling since the 1970s, and is lower than in countries such as Britain, Sweden, and Denmark.
  • The Mobility Agenda, National Review, by Duncan Currie
    December 7, 2009
    Creating an Opportunity Society overflows with keen social and economic insights. It deserves the attention of conservative and liberal policymakers alike."
  • American Dream Needs Repair, Financial Times, by Clive Crook
    November 15, 2009
    This dismal outlook might not seem the ideal setting for a call to new ambition in US social policy. But that is exactly what Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins, scholars at the Brookings Institution, issue in their new book, Creating an Opportunity Society. Unreal as such a summons might seem just now, the authors should be congratulated for refusing to be deflected – and not only because their book is full of excellent analysis and proposals.
  • Is the American Dream a Myth? National Journal, by Ron Brownstein
    October 17, 2009
    But as Brookings Institution scholars Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill demonstrate in a compelling new book, America's record doesn't entirely justify this optimism. Haskins, a former Republican congressional aide, and Sawhill, a former Clinton administration budget official, are two of America's sharpest social-policy analysts. Their book, Creating an Opportunity Society, collects decades of pragmatic insights into the challenge of re-creating an economy that works for all.
  • Poorer, but At Least Not Sicker, The Economist
    September 17, 2009
    Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, said this week that the recession was probably over. But unemployment could stay high even as output recovers, reckons Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, a think-tank. She thinks the poverty rate will peak above 14% and stay as high as 13% for a decade or so. Joblessness can scar those who experience it, she worries. People’s skills deteriorate and they may eventually become discouraged from seeking work.
  • The Evolution of Divorce, National Affairs, by W. Bradford Wilcox
    Fall 2009
    The emergence of the divorce and marriage divide in America exacerbates a host of other social problems. The breakdown of marriage in ­working-class and poor communities has played a major role in fueling poverty and inequality, for instance. Isabel Sawhill at the Brookings Institution has concluded that virtually all of the increase in child poverty in the United States since the 1970s can be attributed to family breakdown.
  • The Bloody Crossroads, The New York Times, by David Brooks
    September 7, 2009
    Two of my favorite essays in the first issue go right at this problem. Ron Haskins delivers a careful reading of the data on inequality and social mobility and cuts through a lot of the sloppy reporting on this issue. He points out that the surest way to achieve mobility is still the same: get married, get a degree, hold on to a job. ‘Poverty in America is a function of culture and behavior at least as much as of entrenched injustice,’ he writes. But how does government alter culture?

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What Others are Saying

  • "This book presents a bold and thoughtful vision of how to change American economic and social policy to promote a more productive and less unequal society. It synthesizes the best research on political economy and the life cycle of skill formation in crafting its recommendations. While some readers will disagree with the authors about the details of some of their proposals, all readers will agree that the book is breathtaking in its scope and deeply thought-provoking. It is a major contribution to the policy debate."
    James J. Heckman, Professor of Economics, University of Chicago, Nobel Laureate, Economics
  • "The authors manage to transcend the political divide and the academic divide on the causes of poverty by focusing on policies that are cost-effective and have the support of the American public. Their message to policy makers is crystal clear: it is not only imperative but possible to create an American opportunity society - let’s do it!"
    Katrin Kriz, Journal of Children and Poverty book review, Department of Sociology, Emmanuel College
  • "Haskins and Sawhill have developed a set of innovative and forward thinking ideas for navigating toward the next generation of social policy. As localities across the nation tackle poverty and implement data-driven solutions, there could not be a more competent duo offering pragmatic, interesting and creative ideas to advance our shared goal of creating opportunity for all."
    Linda I. Gibbs, New York City Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services
  • "Creating an Opportunity Society overflows with keen social and economic insights. It deserves the attention of conservative and liberal policymakers alike."
    Duncan Currie, "The Mobility Agenda," National Review
  • "Their book, Creating an Opportunity Society, collects decades of pragmatic insights into the challenge of re-creating an economy that works for all."
    Ron Brownstein, "Is the American Dream a Myth?," National Journal
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More Information

In their book, the authors recommend a three-pronged approach to create more opportunity in America:

  • Increase education for children and youth at the preschool, K--12, and postsecondary levels
  • Encourage and support work among adults
  • Reduce the number of out-of-wedlock births while increasing the share of children reared by their married parents

Drawing on a wealth of data and research on recent trends in poverty, inequality, and economic mobility, Haskins and Sawhill argue that it will take a combination of personal responsibility and expanded government assistance to make the American Dream a reality for families who are now stuck at the bottom. The book calls for a gradual reallocation of federal resources from the elderly to working-age families and their children and a new set of policies to help the latter advance in these troubling economic times.

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Past Events

Is America Really an Opportunity Society?
October 27, 2009

Despite its status as one of the world’s leading and most innovative economies, the United States is faced with high poverty rates and less economic opportunity than many other affluent countries.

On October 27, Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill discussed their new book, Creating an Opportunity Society, which explores what it will take to help more people achieve the American Dream. Haskins, who served in the Bush administration, and Sawhill, who served in the Clinton administration, found common ground in exploring three proven routes to upward mobility: education, work and strong families. Drawing on a wealth of data and research on recent trends in poverty, inequality and economic mobility, they argue that it will take a combination of personal responsibility along with smarter and better-targeted government policies to make the American Dream a reality for children and families now stuck at the bottom. Their common-sense proposals are deficit-neutral, and they call for a gradual reallocation of federal resources from the elderly to working-age families and their children to help them advance in these troubling economic times.

The event was moderated by Brookings Senior Fellow and Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne. Panelists included commentators David Brooks and Juan Williams, and Deputy Mayor of New York City Linda Gibbs.

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