Land of Broken
By Eugene Robinson
11/23/07 - --- -"Washington
Post" --- - WASHINGTON—We’re
not who we think we are.
The American self-image is suffused with the golden glow of
opportunity. We think of the United States as a land of
unlimited possibility, not so much a classless society, but as a
place where class is mutable—a place where brains, energy and
ambition are what counts, not the circumstances of one’s birth.
But three important new studies suggest that Horatio Alger
doesn’t live here anymore.
The Economic Mobility Project, an ambitious research initiative
led by the Pew Charitable Trusts, looked at the economic
fortunes of a large group of families over time, comparing the
income of parents in the late 1960s with the income of their
children in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Here’s the finding
that jumps out at me:
“The ‘rags to riches’ story is much more common in Hollywood
than on Main Street. Only 6 percent of children born to parents
with family income at the very bottom move to the very top.”
That’s right, just 6 percent of children born to parents who
ranked in the bottom fifth of the study sample, in terms of
income, were able to bootstrap their way into the top fifth.
Meanwhile, an incredible 42 percent of children born into that
lowest quintile are still stuck at the bottom, having been
unable to climb a single rung of the income ladder.
The study notes that even in Britain—a nation we think of as
burdened with a hidebound, anachronistic class system—children
who are born poor have a better chance of moving up.
The Economic Mobility Project can’t be accused of having any
kind of ideological bias; it’s a collaboration, led by Pew,
involving four leading think tanks that pretty much cover the
political spectrum—the American Enterprise Institute, the
Brookings Institution, the Heritage Foundation and the Urban
“Both left and right can care about this,” said John E. Morton,
Pew’s managing director for economic policy. “Traditionally,
Americans have been ready to accept high levels of inequality
because of our belief in the American dream. What happens if we
can’t believe in the dream any longer?”
When the three studies were released last week, most reporters
focused on the finding that African-Americans born to
middle-class or upper middle-class families are earning slightly
less, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than did their parents.
Julia B. Isaacs, the Brookings scholar who authored the reports,
said the reason for this anomaly is still unclear; overall, the
data suggest that blacks are somewhat less upwardly mobile than
whites, although about two-thirds of African-Americans do earn
more than their parents did.
Isaacs said she was surprised at finding that the personal
income of American men—including white men—has been almost
perfectly flat for the past three decades. One of Isaacs’
studies indicates, in fact, that most of the financial gains
white families have made in that time can be attributed to the
entry of white women into the labor force. This is much less
true for African-Americans; in 1968, when the sample group was
first surveyed, black women were far more likely to already have
The picture that emerges from all the quintiles, correlations
and percentages is of a nation in which, overall, “the current
generation of adults is better off than the previous one,” as
one of the studies notes. The median income of the families in
the sample group was $55,600 in the late 1960s; their children’s
median family income was measured at $71,900. However, this
rising tide has not lifted all boats equally. The rich have seen
far greater income gains than have the poor.
Even more troubling is that our notion of America as the land of
opportunity gets little support from the data. Americans move
fairly easily up and down the middle rungs of the ladder, but
there is “stickiness at the ends”—four out of 10 children who
are born poor will remain poor, and four out of 10 children who
are born rich will stay rich.
Isaacs, who specializes in child and family policy at Brookings,
said she thought that improved early childhood education was one
way to begin making the promise of economic mobility more of a
reality; one key to understanding the racial disparities found
in the studies, she said, might be the vast difference in wealth
(as opposed to income) between white and black families.
The Economic Mobility Project’s work should be part of the
political debate. Every candidate for president should read
these studies and then explain why it’s acceptable that a poor
kid has only a 6 percent chance of reaching the top.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is
© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group
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