Economic Mobility: Season of Our Discontent?

Four years out from the onset of the Great Recession, a still-sluggish economy inspired Americans in late 2011 to reflect on the vitality of economic mobility and the American Dream. First, a series of disappointing economic indicators in late summer triggered heightened fears of a double-dip recession. Those were followed by the president’s high-profile jobs speech in September in which he urged the Congress to pass his legislative proposals “right away.” Later in the month, the protestors at Zuccotti Park and elsewhere around the country made “Occupy Wall Street” a rallying cry for disaffected liberals young and old.

While Occupy Wall Street was primarily responsible for putting the issue of mobility in the spotlight, concern about limited opportunity was hardly confined to any one ideological or partisan faction. TIME Magazine devoted a cover story to economic mobility in early November, timed to coincide with the launch of Opportunity Nation, a new bipartisan effort to elevate the visibility of opportunity and mobility in the 2012 presidential campaign. The piece plugged research by the Social Genome Project of the Brookings Center on Children and Families and quoted the Center’s co-directors, Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins. It also cited studies funded by Pew’s Economic Mobility Project, which released several reports in 2011 and shares Opportunity Nation’s goal of increasing (on a bipartisan basis) the salience of mobility in national policy debates.

As it turns out, the subject of economic mobility entered electoral politics as early as February, when Indiana’s Republican governor, Mitch Daniels-then widely but wrongly presumed to be a future candidate-declared in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference that, “Upward mobility from the bottom is the crux of the American promise, and the stagnation of the middle class is in fact becoming a problem, on any fair reading of the facts.” Candidate Rick Santorum noted correctly in a primary debate that, “income mobility from the bottom two quintiles up into the middle income is actually greater in Europe than it is in America today.” And in December, in another attention-grabbing speech, President Obama claimed (more dubiously) that the chance of rising from the poor to the middle class had fallen markedly over time.

The bipartisan, cross-ideological concern for the state of mobility is striking, and points to continued interest in 2012. Neither end of the political spectrum can be said to “own” the issue. The left has perhaps better recognized the problem of limited mobility, and for a longer time, but its characterization tends to paint a uniformly negative picture. In fact, four in five adults today are better off in absolute terms than their parents were at the same age (and that does not even factor in the children of immigrants). If everyone makes more than their parents but positions on the income ladder-who is high or low relative to everyone else-become more tied to parents’ positions, then in one important sense, mobility will have declined. However, the evidence on trends in economic mobility suggests very little change over time, the president’s claim notwithstanding.

The right, on the other hand, has wielded sometimes exaggerated claims of mobility to negate the evidence of rising inequality, pointing out that with enough opportunity, inequality is less obviously an important problem. However, prominent conservatives such as Daniels and Santorum, as well as Congressman Paul Ryan have acknowledged the worst feature of economic mobility in America: our limited upward mobility from the bottom relative to other industrialized nations. The National Review published a long essay by me saying as much as its cover story in November.

Among the American people, two-thirds indicated earlier in the year that they wanted the government to help the poor and middle class improve their financial circumstances, another 16 percent preferred it focus on providing security against downward mobility, while just 13 percent opposed government attention to either goal. If the left can accept that a problem need not be portrayed as worsening in order to be a priority, while the right can acknowledge that limited upward mobility is incongruent with the nation’s most deeply held values, then perhaps we can reach bipartisan consensus that rejuvenating the American Dream should be a top national priority.

Then we can debate the solutions. Public policy today is perceived as doing more harm than good when it comes to promoting mobility, both because it is viewed as ineffective and mis-targeted. Given the imposing fiscal constraints federal and state budgets face today and political opposition to European-sized tax rates, it is likely that policymakers will have to figure out how to do more with less. If they cannot, and if it takes years to slog through the current recovery, economic mobility will likely remain a prominent area of concern for the foreseeable future.