The Thorny Politics of Mobility

In this essay from the Center on Children and Families’ Essay Series on Character and Opportunity, Lanae Erickson Hatalsky laments that championing the policies that would truly address our mobility crisis carries political risks on both sides of the aisle. Policymakers from both parties should therefore join forces and step into the fray together.

Within the span of a single week earlier this year, three of the most frequently mentioned Presidential aspirants in their respective parties gave major addresses on poverty. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) each implored our nation – and their fellow policymakers in Washington, D.C. – to make changes that will help those at the bottom of the economic ladder become more upwardly mobile. Leaders in both political parties are calling for action to address the fact that 7 in 10 children born in the bottom economic quintile will never even break through to the middle one. So why can’t we pass legislation that would help those children have a better chance of success in life? Because while talking about the problem may be good politics, championing the policies that would truly address our mobility crisis carries political risks on both sides of the aisle.

While there are certainly some widely popular economic policies that could do something to ease the burden on low income families – such as raising the minimum wage – many of the purely economic solutions under discussion by lawmakers would do little if anything to help children move up the income ladder over their lifetimes. And while some of these economic policy changes might be necessary, they aren’t remotely sufficient. We can’t truly address the mobility crisis unless we are willing to go beyond the safely poll-tested economic measures and consider non-economic ways that government levers could help to give every child born into the bottom quintile a chance to break poverty’s gravitational hold. And that requires asking ourselves what kinds of non-economic characteristics can help someone succeed despite long odds.

New research in the education arena answers that question, illustrating that attributes like grit (the tenacity and perseverance to overcome obstacles to reach long term goals) and a growth mindset (the belief that the brain is like a muscle that, if properly exercised, can become stronger and make a person smarter and more skilled through effort) are significant predictors of success later in life. The way to nurture these characteristics (which we shorthand as “the mobility mentality”) is through grown-ups, who can teach, instill, and reinforce them at an early age. The most effective thing government can do to make the bottom quintile more permeable and help kids become upwardly mobile may be to encourage a mobility mentality and ensure that children have grown-ups in their lives that are equipped to channel and reinforce it.

Here, however, enter the political perils. The conversation about instilling grit and a growth mindset in kids, and using the grown-ups in their lives to buttress it, is a nuanced and sensitive one – the exact opposite of simply publicly aligning yourself with the nearly irrefutably statement that we have a mobility crisis in this country. For Democrats, it runs the risk of sounding like apostasy, blaming poor children for their own situation in life and chiding them to simply have more grit and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. It also quickly calls up touchy issues like family structure – which Democrats would prefer to avoid discussing at all costs.

President Obama became well acquainted with some of these risks when he gave a speech as a candidate on the importance of fatherhood. He was the perfect messenger to speak about the importance of non-economic factors to mobility, yet he was immediately skewered by African American leaders, feminists, and other core Democratic constituencies, to the point that political commentators wondered aloud whether those voters would even show up at the polls to support him (a worry that in retrospect seems unthinkable). A piece in Ebony captured the criticism, saying Obama had “castigate[d] black fathers” and “g[iven] public voice to what white people whisper about blacks in their living rooms,” while Rev. Jesse Jackson said Obama was “talking down to black people.” The President was not cowed – he has continued to raise the non-economic factors that harden the mobility barrier throughout his two terms, but every time he does, he gets blowback from those on the left.

Republicans, on the other hand, are much more comfortable discussing the non-economic factors that might contribute to or help overcome the mobility crisis. Yet this aspect of the poverty conversation often gives them foot-in-mouth disease – setting the stage for politicians to inadvertently say something that sounds patronizing to the poor, demeaning to single women, or offensive to African Americans (or all three). Congressman Ryan learned this lesson earlier this year when his Democratic colleagues in the House of Representatives called his comments on his much-publicized poverty tour “a thinly-veiled racial attack.” The negative Republican Party brand on issues of race and gender provides a backdrop that (not necessarily unfairly) casts a vague statement as an attack on women and minorities. And while Republicans are generally more comfortable with the idea that the mobility mentality is important, they can be wary of suggesting that government should have anything to do with instilling it and instead are too quick to defer to traditional family structures. Yet by relying on marriage as a panacea, they insult the huge proportion of families that might not look like theirs, and worse, they imply that kids can only succeed in a heterosexual, married, two-parent household – and that kids of single parents are doomed.

Given these political risks and pressures, it seems unlikely that either party alone will make it a major priority to figure out how the government can more effectively encourage and reward grit and a growth mindset. Policymakers from both parties should therefore join forces and step into the fray together – bringing their respective strengths together to form a coalition of leaders who are committed to using every lever at our disposal to ensure that kids who are born at the bottom of the income ladder aren’t destined to remain there.