In December a study on social mobility was described in a CNN report as debunking “The Myth of the American Dream “(Dec. 9, 2013). It called into question the long held vision of Horatio Alger’s America where anyone by pluck could get ahead.
Instead it showed one is much less likely to rise from lower or working class beginnings here than in almost every developed country except for Italy and the notoriously class bound UK. But in Denmark, Japan, Canada, France and several others you have a better chance to get ahead than in the supposed land of opportunity.
One reason cited for more social mobility elsewhere is less inequality in a society in the first place. When the gap between poor and middle class or middle class and affluent isn’t that wide to begin with, progressing a rung or two is less difficult. Here, the eroding middle is creating a chasm so large between just scraping by and comfortably well-off that an Evel Knievel would find it hard to leap.
One finding will please social conservatives; the fact that stable families and a low divorce rate tend to increase the likelihood of children getting ahead. But on the nanny state side of the ledger is the finding that countries with greater social mobility also tend to have more redistributive tax systems which impose a somewhat greater burden on the rich but in turn equip the poor with the tools they need to advance and prosper.
An even more potent factor appears to be equal access to a quality education, particularly one which places an emphasis on math, science and practical technology in a workplace that has shifted so radically from manual labor to knowledge work. In this regard the authors found the obvious was true: Wealthy families have the wherewithal to provide a better education for their children in myriad ways. That gives them a huge head start on maintaining their position or bettering themselves.
This issue of increasing inequality in income, education and therefore opportunity has rather belatedly entered the political discourse. Interestingly neither party seems inclined to dispute the fact that such inequality exists. The fight is over what, if anything, to do about it.
President Obama has backed several measures to address income inequality and to provide tools to help those at risk. Most are variations on Democratic staples that once would have been unexceptional – the renewal of unemployment insurance and food stamps, educational improvements and aid with tuition. Insofar as some of these programs have been flawed or led to unintended consequences, for example by encouraging education inflation by helping students pay for it while allowing schools to gouge, the remedy ought to be repair not repeal. But many of these palliatives seem too tame to address a growing problem which threatens to break the social contract that binds us together. Perhaps it is time to think anew.
On the other side, the Republicans often act as if any attempts to help the least among us to improve their lot is quasi-socialist mollycoddling. This is after all the party of the Mitt Romney who was caught, in a moment of candor, saying there was no point in trying to appeal to the 47 percent of Americans who were on the government dole since they would never vote Republican. (A 47% that includes all recipients of Social Security, Medicare, student loans, veterans’ benefits, earned income tax credits, mortgage deductions, charitable deductions, you name it).
It is also the party that chooses to employ its Orwellian Newspeak to dismiss inequality as a problem of “the makers vs. the takers.” In this Social Darwinian spin on the American Dream, the government should do everything to encourage the “makers” with low taxes and lax regulations so they can prosper. Conversely, it should teach a valuable lesson to those who need a hand by not giving it to them. This tough love approach will allow them to learn the value of self-reliance.
But doesn’t this make the makers into takers themselves? And rather rapacious ones, at that? And do the poster boys for self reliance pass the smell test? Mitt, for example, was the son of a major company’s CEO. He attended only the finest prep schools and received his graduate training at Harvard. And if he ever wanted to start a business, a couple stray million were never hard to put his hands on.
Amusing as this standoff is as a morality play, the legislative impasse it produces does nothing to address the real issues of inequality in our society. They don’t just make a mockery of the Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman citizen but put our competitiveness at risk in a world requiring us to produce more makers out of more common men. The ones that Lincoln said the Lord must have loved because he made so many of them.
Next: Even worse news on the education inequality front.