It’s Time to Put Opportunity on the National Agenda

Thanks to the efforts of a major bipartisan coalition called Opportunity Nation (ON) we are about to have a lively and important conversation about opportunity in the United States and how we might restore the proverbial American Dream. The ON coalition, made up of leaders from business, nonprofit groups, faith communities, the media, and various academic and advocacy groups representing 150 national and community organizations, is meeting in New York City on November 4 to wrestle with what it might take to expand access to the middle class for all Americans, including the most disadvantaged. No coalition of this size can have a single vision but the group has rejected the simplistic notion that there is a conflict between markets and government. They are reaffirming the importance of a focus on economic and social mobility in American life.

This focus on opportunity should resonate with the public. Surveys show they support promoting opportunity far more strongly than the goals of reducing poverty and inequality.

In addition, there is room for some bipartisan agreement in this arena. Both liberals and conservatives are in favor of opportunity; they just favor somewhat different ways of achieving it. Liberals tend to favor a more active government along with more attention to current inequities and hardships, including poverty, inequality, and joblessness. Conservatives understand the appeal of an opportunity agenda but often view it through the lens of personal responsibility and stress the importance of nongovernmental institutions such as faith communities and other voluntary, grass-roots organizations. Both Rick Santorum and Paul Ryan have flagged the issue in recent weeks (never mind that Ryan got some of his facts wrong). Finding common ground between these diverse views requires an acceptance of the fact that upward mobility depends on both personal responsibility and effective supports from society along with policies that reward those who are making efforts on their own behalf. The Earned Income Tax Credit is an excellent example of a policy that ties government support to individual effort (in this case, work) and as a result, it has been supported by both parties in the past. It is also one of the few programs exempted from the automatic cuts that will go into effect if the Super Committee cannot agree on a deficit reduction package.

The Occupy Wall Street protesters have focused most of their attention on the differences between the top 1 percent and the other 99 percent. This is part of the story, but only part. Columnists David Brooks and Ross Douthat urge us to pay attention to the 99 percent. Brooks notes that in addition to the huge concentration of wealth at the very top that is currently getting most of the attention, we have seen dramatically widening income and social gaps between the college educated and everyone else. Douthat makes a similar point, noting that a focus on higher taxes for the top 1 percent isn’t going to solve the problem for the other 99 percent. To make a difference, we also need to reallocate resources from the more affluent but not super rich elderly to working-age families and their children and fix critical public institutions, especially education. Otherwise upward mobility and broadly shared prosperity over the longer run will be elusive.

If the ON coalition is successful in putting this topic on the agenda in 2012, it could lead to a deeper conversation about the nature of opportunity in the United States. Our research here at Brookings shows that we have less mobility than many other advanced countries and less than most Americans believe. One’s chance of being middle class by middle age depends very significantly on the circumstances of one’s birth. Children from disadvantaged families can make it into the middle class but they do so at a far lower rate than their more advantaged peers, and one reason is because of failures at every stage of the educational process. For example, only two-fifths of children born in the 1980s graduated from high school with a 2.5 grade point average and no involvement in crime or teenage pregnancy. Yet success at this stage, or at an earlier stage of life, is critical to later success.

Although I think a focus on opportunity is overdue, poverty and inequality still matter. When the rungs on the ladder are far apart, it is a lot harder to climb the ladder. And a society without an adequate safety net leaves nothing but a hard landing for those that happen to fall. These concerns point to the importance of a fairer tax code and maintaining an adequate safety net in these fiscally austere times.

For the longer term, we need a presidential candidate who will set a new goal for the nation—one that involves building on the public’s deep seated belief that everyone should have a shot at the American Dream. One way to do this would be to set a quantitative target for the proportion of children from disadvantaged families who make it into the middle class as adults. Right now a little over half of them do. Increasing the proportion by, say, 10 percentage points over the next several decades would be a worthy goal that might bring together all of our efforts to improve children’s circumstances at birth, early education, progress through elementary and high school, along with their access to higher education or to the career and technical education they need to join the middle class.