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Some Problems with Upward Social Mobility in America

“Contrary to the cherished beliefs of most Americans, the United States has less social mobility than any other developed country. As Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution have shown, 42 percent of American men with fathers in the bottom fifth of the income distribution remain there as compared to: Denmark, 25 percent; Sweden, 26 percent; Finland, 28 percent; Norway, 28 percent; and Britain, 30 percent. The American Dream is fast becoming a myth.”

John Quiggin

I’ve posted information similar to the above on an internet forum.  Often enough, I am told in response the lack of social mobility in America reflects, not a structural problem, but rather a decline in the personal habits, morals, and virtues of Americans.  “If only people would work harder, etc.”, the argument goes, “social mobility would be restored in America.”

When I brought this issue up with Ed Darrell over at the award winning, Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, he responded with what I believe is the best counter I’ve yet seen to the notion, “If only people would work harder, etc., social mobility would be restored in America.”  Here’s Ed’s counter:

Were it personal flaw, shouldn’t that negatively affect the social mobility in nations where the personal morals are, collectively, much lower than in the U.S.?

Those nations named by Prof. Quiggin are usually held out to be bastions of libertinism for most such discussions — socialist nations, where single parents get time off from work to look after babies, and payments from the government to insure the kid gets enough to eat and can get into a decent school.

Which personal habits, morals and virtues do they speak of?

The southern U.S., and especially the Bible Belt, shows a greater lack of social mobility than the rest of the nation. Do your critics mean that people should attend less church, be less religious, have more babies out of wedlock, etc.?

I think your critics aren’t paying attention, and they’ve missed the boat.

I would be pleased, dear reader, to know what you make of (1) the argument,  “If only people would work harder, etc., social mobility would be restored in America.”; and (2) Ed’s counter to (1)?

By the way, you can find Ed’s original post on this matter here, complete with comments.

18 thoughts on “Some Problems with Upward Social Mobility in America”

  1. The issue here is not how hard people work — after all, both middle class and working class people can have outstanding work ethics. The real issue, methinks, is education. Because of poor public education and the exorbant expenses of college, many young working class people do not have the money or skills to enter college. Without a good education, improving one’s lot in life is very difficult.

    That’s my two cents.


  2. The idea that “working hard” equals upward mobility doesn’t really pan out when you look at labor statistics. Here are the hours per year worked for the average citizen in 2009.

    US: 1768
    Denmark: 1563
    Sweden: 1610
    Finland: 1652
    Norway: 1407
    UK: 1646

    So, if one looked only at how hard one worked, the easier one took things, the more likely one would advance.

    I suspect two primary reasons these countries have outpaced us is that we surpassed them in the mid 20th century, and also that at the end of the 20th century we started shipping all of our best middle class jobs overseas. As we’ve become a service-oriented society, the jobs leading to a better life have dried up. Not to mention that wages have been stagnant for the last thirty years in our country, relative to inflation. Add that all up, and it’s easy to see why we’ve not been able to keep up the pace we set fifty years ago.


  3. That’s an excellent point, Ahab! I’ve heard education is the foremost vehicle of upward social mobility in the US, that it beats all the other means of upward social mobility, so I think you are spot on with your analysis.

    I have one reservation, though. Sadly, it’s this: In an age when even middle class white collar jobs that have traditionally been reserved for well educated Americans are being shipped overseas by the tens of thousands, is education as effective a means of getting ahead in this country as it once was?

    What do you think?


  4. Jeebers, Sean! On that chart you linked to, the US is at the bottom of the heap, competing with the Russian Federation for worse number of hours worked in the entire Western World! As a nation, we need to get a life!

    I think both you and Ahab are right on the mark when you guys assert that working hard is, by itself, not a good indicator of (or means to) upward social mobility in the US. That’s a tough call to make, because everyone is told that it’s a good indicator/means, but it’s obvious you two see through that BS.

    I am also in complete agreement with your analysis of why we are no longer the upwardly mobile society we were 50 years ago. The factors you mention cannot be argued with.

    One of my best friends, Don, likes to remind me at moments like this one that most of our troubles in this area began under Ronald Reagan.

    What do you think of that?


  5. People who attend less church, are less religious, are FAR LESS LIKELY to father or give birth to babies out of wedlock, the reason being that they are given and are aware of complete information on sexuality and know about contraception, STDs, thus are less likely to engage in unprotected sex, indeed to make much intelligent decisions about sexual conduct, including choosing not to be sexually active simply because they are too wise and informed to be seduced or otherwise tricked into unwise sexual behavior by religiously oriented sexual predators.


  6. Karen, would that have anything in your opinion to do with why the Southern States show a greater lack of upward social mobility than the rest of the country — that is, the fact they have more out of wedlock teen births than the rest of the country?


  7. Not to change the subject, but the reason the middle-class is failing is because the American boom after WWII was an historical aberration brought into being by numerous unrelated factors. The middle-class reached the high-water mark with my parents generation, the generation birthing children at the very end of the Baby Boom. Ever since then, the ability to move upward has ceased for the vast majority of Americans.


    Each stage has given way to a more suitable one for a growing and hungry population; until now. If all America has to offer the world is information, then there is no mobility left unless all aspects of government, business and education come together to create new opportunities. The ridiculous fighting in D.C. over votes between right and left will continue America’s acceleration into mediocrity. As a nation, we are slipping from the First World and will soon be a shadow of our potential. It’s not about the lack of work ethic, it’s about the lack of work. Wealth without ethics is simply the recipe for revolution.


  8. Wealth without ethics is simply the recipe for revolution.”

    That certainly ranks up there as one of the most astute observations ever posted on this blog, Brian. Thank you for sharing that!

    I’m of the opinion there are multiple reasons the American middle class is failing. The one you cite — the ending of the American boom — is certainly a biggie. But so too are declining educational standards and choices, the closely related issue of the dumbing down of America via such obscenities as Fox News, the off-shoring of middle class jobs, the persecution and destruction of the labor unions, the stagnation of middle class wages, and on and on and on. I have never even once seen a comprehensive list of all the probable causes. Only partial lists.

    I like your analysis of what should be done, Brian. It strikes me as a very good start.


  9. How about $50000+ a year to attend university as a break to upward mobility? How about everybody on his own and no governement intervention nor regulations as a means to ensure those who have get more and those who have not get even less?
    But you have guns in every cupboards and Tea Party galore.


  10. Education may be a key to upward mobility… but we have been dismantling access to education in this country. Costs are rising at stupid-high rates and aid to pay for it is shrinking.


  11. In regards to the Regan era, I was too young to really understand the politics of the time (although I do remember Iran/Contra as my into to national politics) but I bet there are records out there that would show upward mobility stopped around that time. I believe that is the last time we saw real wage increases for our nation (adjusted for inflation) on average. I know Regan’s leadership brought us the lowest top income tax rate in the modern era (dropping from 70% in 1980 to 28% in 88) which undoubtedly helped the rich get richer while the government got poorer. It seems likely he laid the ground for job killers such as NAFTA and lack of trade tariffs… not to mention the increased value of “faith” in politics and the destruction of our manufacturing base as mentioned by other commentators above.


  12. Sean, I think it is easy to demonize Reagan because the list of things he did that turned out harmful to the poor and middle class is a very long one. Folks say, “Don’t demonize him!” And I agree it’s bad to do that. But it is also so very easy because of his actions.


  13. It’s happening… but thankfully the Community College level is a little slower. At least for now, as states cut back funding community colleges will certainly feel the pinch despite growing enrollment.


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