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First, create an Office of Opportunity

It is hardly breaking news that rates of intergenerational mobility in the U.S. are low.  It is especially troubling given our self-identification as a land of opportunity, full of people scrambling up the economic ladder. There is bipartisan agreement about the problem. “Upward mobility is the central promise of life in America, says House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan, “but America’s engines of upward mobility aren’t working the way they should.” Meanwhile President Obama warns that “a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility…has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain — that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead. I believe this is the defining challenge of our time.”

Whoever occupies the White House next will need to face these uncomfortable facts. The U.S. is an increasingly class-stratified society, with a strong correlation between the circumstances of birth and prospects in life. Race adds another dimension to this problem, with half of the black children born poor remaining poor as adults. Policies to break the cycle of intergenerational inequality cover a wide range, from reducing unintended pregnancy, strengthening parenting, closing gaps in early education, promoting excellence for poorer students in K-12 schools, dismantling anti-competitive residential zoning, investing in vocational training, remaking higher education, and adding social class to organizations’ diversity agenda, to name just a few.

The U.S. is an increasingly class-stratified society, with a strong correlation between the circumstances of birth and prospects in life.

But one step the new president can take immediately is to give some institutional muscle to the drive for higher intergenerational mobility by establishing an Office of Opportunity.  I am aware that all too often, the creation of a new office is an alternative to real action. But in this case, it would be a vital precursor. Rather than launching into immediate, large spending programs (even if Congress would comply), the next President needs to ensure that policy is being created with clear goals and success metrics; is based on the highest-quality data and evidence; and is subject to intensive, ongoing evaluation.

Enter the Office of Opportunity. This new body could be created in different ways. As well as my own plans, set out in “Planning the American Dream: The Case for an Office of Opportunity,” ideas for such an Office have been put forward by experts of all political stripes, such as Scott Winship, from the center-right Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, and from Monique Rizer of the left-leaning Opportunity Nation. What should such an office do?

  • Set out clear measures and goals. If upward mobility is so important, it would be good to know how much of it we have, and what the trend is. Even if we can’t agree about the best ways to increase intergenerational mobility, we can surely agree that we should know whether it is in fact being increased. Of course there is some good academic and think-tank work around, but this does not have the status of official data. You don’t leave measurements of economic growth to non-official bodies. Why do so for measurements of mobility? The Office could simply track progress. But if you wanted to go a step further, why not set a target? Right now, the proportion of Americans born in the bottom quintile making it into one of the top two quintiles as adults is 13 percent. In a world of perfect mobility, that number would be 40 percent. How about setting 26 percent as an initial target (i.e. doubling the current rate of upward mobility)?
  • Create a dashboard of opportunity “leading indicators.” It takes a generation to measure intergenerational mobility. But there are more immediate indicators of likely trends, short-term symptoms of long-term issues. A dashboard of these leading indicators should be created and updated annually. (The K. government publishes 19 that have been independently judged to be powerful predictors of long-run mobility.) These indicators might be organized around key life stages, from birth though education, to transition to the labor market.
  • Assess policies for improving social mobility. The Office should also be charged with assessing the likely effectiveness of policies aimed at narrowing the opportunity gap. Just as the CBO “scores” spending, so the Office of Opportunity should “score” likely mobility impact, drawing on the best available evidence. The Office ought to be evangelical about the ends—intergenerational mobility—but agnostic about the various means to achieve it. What matters is what works.At least in the first phases of its life, the Office should probably not be a grant-making body, except in terms of evaluation studies. It will therefore require only a modest budget.

When success in life depends on our start in life, the ideal of American fairness is imperiled.

The creation of an office, focused on measurements, data and evaluation may seem a tepid response to the opportunity gaps in the U.S. But it is important not only to promote policies but to create the right policy architecture, in order to invest wisely, for the long term, and towards clearly stated goals. When success in life depends on our start in life, the ideal of American fairness is imperiled. Measures of social mobility are not merely empirical ones. In an important sense, they are the measure of the nation.

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