What Republicans and Democrats Can Do To Promote Social Mobility

In a discussion on NPR’s Morning Edition, David Wessel and Nathan Hendren discussed social mobility in America. Wessel is director of the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy at Brookings. Hendren is co-author, with Emmanuel Saez and others, of a new study on patterns of social mobility over time that shows economic mobility has not changed much but is lower in the U.S. than in most other developed countries. Here are David Wessel’s answers to host Steve Inskeep’s questions about the study and social mobility in general:

Should I be bothered by the finding that mobility is not getting worse but there still is a far greater gap between rich and poor?

I think you should. One of the contributions the study has made is to destroy a myth that is widespread in Washington. That it’s harder for kids to rise out of poverty into the middle class. But the consequences of losing the birth lottery are greater, and they also point out that it was and is harder to rise from poverty to the middle class or from the middle class to wealth than it is in other countries.

It’s easier to move up out of poverty in France, England and Germany?

Correct. The notion that America is a special place where any kid can grow up to be president is very important to the America psyche, but when you look at the data, it’s harder to rise from the bottom to the middle or from the middle to the top in the U.S. than in other rich countries around the world.

What are Republicans and Democrats saying and thinking when it comes to inequality and mobility?

Well, there is a substantial amount of agreement. Republicans Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan, and Chuck Schumer—a Democratic senator—and Barack Obama all agree that they would like to do things to make social mobility greater, to make it easier for people to climb from the bottom and the middle to the top.

They disagree on what to do about it. Oversimplifying only a little, the Republicans think the government ought to step back and people ought to do more for themselves. And the president is likely to emphasize both the responsibility of parents—which is something he talks about quite a bit—but also what the government can do to increase the chances that poor kids can make it to the middle class: better pre-K, better access to college, removing the barriers to people getting jobs, particularly those who have been out of work a long time. All those things the government can do to speed up the escalator of mobility

What do you think is beyond the government’s control?

I think that there is evidence that parents matter. And being born to parents who are married, who haven’t been to jail, who read to you, who make sure you go to school, who help you avoid getting pregnant as a teenager, who keep you out of jail—those kids are more likely to make it. The government can do things to encourage good parenting, but I think even among liberals, there’s agreement now that parents have a responsibility to their kids and that some parents are failing in that duty.

Get more from the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy, as well as the latest research and commentary on social mobility from the Center on Children and Families.