Many researchers have reached a conclusion that turns conventional wisdom on its head: Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe. The mobility gap has been widely discussed in academic circles, but a sour season of mass unemployment and street protests has moved the discussion toward center stage.Meaning, by all measures of social capital (education, health, wealth, employment, etc.) the deck is stacked against those who start out at the bottom.
One reason for the mobility gap may be the depth of American poverty, which leaves poor children starting especially far behind. Another may be the unusually large premiums that American employers pay for college degrees. Since children generally follow their parents’ educational trajectory, that premium increases the importance of family background and stymies people with less schooling.
The confirming data is truly alarming.
At least five large studies in recent years have found the United States to be less mobile than comparable nations. A project led by Markus Jantti, an economist at a Swedish university, found that 42 percent of American men raised in the bottom fifth of incomes stay there as adults. That shows a level of persistent disadvantage much higher than in Denmark (25 percent) and Britain (30 percent) — a country famous for its class constraints.
Meanwhile, just 8 percent of American men at the bottom rose to the top fifth. That compares with 12 percent of the British and 14 percent of the Danes.
Despite frequent references to the United States as a classless society, about 62 percent of Americans (male and female) raised in the top fifth of incomes stay in the top two-fifths, according to research by the Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Similarly, 65 percent born in the bottom fifth stay in the bottom two-fifths.
Thus, the notion that the U.S. is a class-based system of stratification does not square with the facts. We are, in fact, a caste society.
So what are the causes?
The causes of America’s mobility problem are a topic of dispute — starting with the debates over poverty. The United States maintains a thinner safety net than other rich countries, leaving more children vulnerable to debilitating hardships.
Poor Americans are also more likely than foreign peers to grow up with single mothers. That places them at an elevated risk of experiencing poverty and related problems, a point frequently made by Mr. Santorum, who surged into contention in the Iowa caucuses. The United States also has uniquely high incarceration rates, and a longer history of racial stratification than its peers.
A second distinguishing American trait is the pay tilt toward educated workers. While in theory that could help poor children rise — good learners can become high earners — more often it favors the children of the educated and affluent, who have access to better schools and arrive in them more prepared to learn.
“Upper-income families can invest more in their children’s education and they may have a better understanding of what it takes to get a good education,” said Eric Wanner, president of the Russell Sage Foundation, which gives grants to social scientists.
Thus, privilege actually becomes merit in a meritocracy. Which students do the best on standardized tests? Wealthier students, who then go on to assume seats in the country's best universities, earning advanced degrees, and earning more money. All, ironically, under the guise of merit ("I earned this, I worked hard for this," etc.), when in fact, they've earned nothing. They are merely products of their social background.
This is what Randall Collins warned about 30 years ago in the "The Credential Society". We are creating a system of stratification in the U.S. where privilege has become personal merit, and the quality and quantity of your credentials is directly tied to social background.
Nonetheless, as the evil Karl Marx warned 150 years ago, when you create a society where inequality is vast, you sow the seeds for eventual social revolution. And while inequality in the U.S. today may not be as bad as it once was, the fact that we are slipping back towards an agrarian "haves and have nots" system of stratification does not bode well for the future.
Perhaps another brake on American mobility is the sheer magnitude of the gaps between rich and the rest — the theme of the Occupy Wall Street protests, which emphasize the power of the privileged to protect their interests. Countries with less equality generally have less mobility.
The stagnation at the bottom is alarming and may worsen. Most of the studies end with people born before 1970, while wage gaps, single motherhood and incarceration increased later. Until more recent data arrives, [Salam] said, “we don’t know the half of it.”