Horatio Alger is the greatest champion of social mobility in the public imagination. His tales of young men (and they were men) born poor, but overcoming adversity through hard work and extraordinary character, have influenced ideas about the American Dream for more than a century. Monday marks Alger’s 182nd birthday: not coincidentally, that’s the date of our first annual Social Mobility Summit.
We will hear keynote speeches from Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand about their visions for opportunity (you can register for the live webcasts here). But during the rest of the day, we’re convening a series of invitation-only session with leading practitioners and academics to generate real policy solutions to help close the opportunity gap. (Look out on this blog for some products of these labors; and sign up for our regular updates.)
Every Stage Matters
Improving intergenerational mobility is necessarily a lifetime’s work. In earlier work, CCF has identified five key transition stages across the lifecycle that are critical for promoting mobility and opportunity. The working sessions at the Summit will reflect this by focusing on each critical life stage:
- Family Formation: the circumstances surrounding a child’s birth–particularly parents’ marital status and mother’s education–are highly predictive of life chances. While teen pregnancy rates are at an all-time low, about 70% of pregnancies to unmarried women in their twenties are unintended.
- Early Childhood: Differences in early childhood, such as parenting and preschool quality, show early gaps by income. Fewer than half the children born to poor families are prepared for kindergarten at age 5, in terms of cognitive and behavioral skills.
- K-12: from early elementary school, where almost half of low-income kids are significantly behind in reading, math, or behavioral skills, all the way through to adolescence, where drop-out rates, teen pregnancy, and criminal conviction are much higher, children from poor families are struggling at every grade level.
- Postsecondary: Many more people are enrolling in college, including lower-income students, but graduation rates are not increasing significantly. And community colleges, which serve the highest proportion of low income and minority students, have abysmal completion rates.
- Labor market: there’s no substitute for a full-employment economy, where decent jobs are available to all who want them. But as the current debate over the importance of the minimum wage and the EITC shows, there are also policies that can assist low-income families more directly, including reforms to the EITC (on which you’ll hear more from Belle Sawhill next week.)
The opportunity gap is really a series of gaps that start early and widen over time. No single program at any one life stage offers a solution: it will take many programs and changes in life courses at many stages. The good news is that, as our work has shown, multiple programs—each with modest but meaningful effects—together can make a real difference.
I’ve seen some pretty awful poverty. [But] There is something about poverty in the U.S. that is worse, even though, materially, people have more.