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America, land of opportunity - NOT!

by: teacherken

Sat Feb 13, 2010 at 07:56:05 AM EST

originally posted at Daily Kos on 2/12

According a report on social mobility published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD], the United States ranks pretty poorly among industrialized nations on intergenerational advancement-that is, the ability to transcend the socioeconomic class, income level, and educational attainment of your family. So that whole bootstraps thing? It looks like that quintessential self-made man is more at home in Norway than Our Town.
 Those words are from a piece by Michelle Chen in Racewire.  In Moving On Up and Hitting a Wall: Social Mobility in the U.S. and Europe she summarized a new report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on mobility or immobility across generations,  If we are concerned about the future of this nation, we should pay attention to this report: it should remind us yet again that the opportunity to move from one social/economic class to another, something that has been an important characteristic of our society, at least in theory, is rapidly diminishing.

I will explore both Chen's piece and the report to which she refers, and offer a few thoughts of my own.

teacherken :: America, land of opportunity - NOT!
The full report, in PDF form, is Intergenerational Transmission of Disadvantage: Mobility or Immobility across Generations?  A Review of the Evidence for OECD Countries.   I am limited in how much I can quote from it not only by fair use, but because of a statement requiring prior permission to "reproduce or translate  all or part of this material."  Still, since the intent of the report is "to make available to a wider readership selected labour market, social policy and migration studies prepared for use within the OECD" and since Chen makes use of some of the information, I feel well within acceptable limits by what I will share here.

Let me start with some of Chen's observations.  

The findings expose the entrenchment of a class hierarchy even in supposedly modern, diverse democracies. It seems inheritance is still a major driver of opportunity, even in the land of the free. America does stand out among our more regressive European brethren, however, in that we utterly lack the social safety nets that have served as a buffer against structural inequality. While class divisions in France or England may be frustrating in terms of individual opportunity, lower-class status for the French and British is far less likely to result in a family death sentence due to lack of health care.

a family death sentence due to lack of health care -  how I wish we could hammer that into the minds of those resisting health care reform in this nation.   Yes, I know that masses of people tend to respond less to data than to emotion, but sometimes data can cause an appropriate emotional response.

Chen rightly points out that the OECD report does not directly  "explore in detail how race and ethnicity track socioeconomic status and by extension, intergenerational mobility" although we know that in the US race and ethnicity play a huge role on socioeconomic status (SES).  She refers to a 2009 report from the Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Trusts which "found links between racial and economic segregation that dictate the fate of whole generations of Black children."  She quotes from the executive summary of that Pew report, which has the title Neighborhoods and the Black-White Mobility Gap,:

Four in five black children who started in the top three quintiles experienced downward mobility, compared with just two in five white children. Three in five white children who started in the bottom two quintiles experienced upward mobility, versus just one in four black children.
  I would suspect that anyone who has paid attention would not be surprised by such data.  If one turns to the conclusion of that Pew report, one is presented with this stark statement:  
In the United States, living in a poor neighborhood often means being in an environment that is unhealthy and violent, and may offer relatively poor learning opportunities and economic opportunities  The troubling news from this report is that inequality in our neighborhoods may be contributing to the persistence of racial difference in economic mobility.  The hopeful news is that investments in neighborhoods that reduce the concentration of poverty could have powerful effects on the economic trajectories of children living within the most disadvantaged communities.

Of course, we have in the past few decades moved away from the programs of the Great Society that were intended to make a difference in the most disadvantaged communities, not all of which contain large percentages of Blacks and Hispanics, as anyone who has visited parts of Appalachia quickly realizes, and as I experienced when volunteering at a medical mission in Grundy VA, in Buchanan County, in October.  Buchanan is the poorest county in Virginia, with a per capita income of $12,788 in 1999, only a bit more than half the average of the Commonwealth, according to the Quick Facts of the US Census Bureau.  Buchanan is only 3.3% Black, while the Commonwealth of Virginia as a whole is 19.9% Black.  Still, in general, the issue of race seems to trump that of class, perhaps because our Black population is still much more proportionally tilted to the two bottom quintiles of SES.

One chart from the OECD report, which appears on p. 38. seems to portray starkly how immobile we are in America.  It lists the probability of a son being in the same quintile as his father.  In the top quintile, the US shows a probability of .422, as compared to Scandinavian nations like Denmark (.247), Finland (.278), Norway (.282), Sweden (.262), and even the supposedly class-rigid UK (.297).  Perhaps an examination of taxing policy, including inheritance taxes, might partially explain this.  

But it is another chart on the same page that makes the issue of mobility even more clear, and that is the chance of a son whose father was in the bottom quintile moving to the top:   US (.079); Denmark (.144); Finland (.113); Norway (.119); Sweden (.109); and UK (.124)

or the converse, from the top to the bottom:   US (.095); Denmark (.153); Finland (.151); Norway (.146); Sweden (.159); and UK (.091)  - and yes, at least on this measure we do better than the UK, albeit only marginally.

The conclusions offered in the OECD report will not surprise.  Better education, more stable families, reducing the current disparities of income can all contribute to greater social mobility, especially for those whose families are in the lower two quintiles.  Of course, increasing opportunity for those at the bottom is too often viewed by those at the top through the lens of a zero sum game, that is, if those at the bottom will see their children do better, won't that hurt my children, at least comparatively?

I am not in this diary going to suggest a particular course of action.  I acknowledge that there are many factors which complicate the making of policy, not the least of which is the tendency of too many to be more concerned about their own re-election prospects than the broader good of the American people.  And as Chen notes,

redistribution of material resources can only go so far in a society where opportunity often hangs on the color line--as race can't be erased through education or tax policy.

Still, perhaps we can start by being honest, by demythologizing, by pointing out that one who attempts to pull himself up by his own bootstraps is far more likely to fall over than to succeed in elevating himself to a higher SES.  Government has a major role to play in providing an opportunity for advancement.  Even those who claim to have done it on their own often conveniently ignore the benefits of government policy that have provided opportunity and sometimes comparative advantage, whether those policies be education (of their workers at public expense), transportation (the interstate highway system, government management of air traffic control and public funding of airports), taxation (especially the comparative advantage of capital gains, but also depreciation of equipment and the ability to expense things not available to individual taxpayers), and so on.

We have seen decreasing opportunity for movement during my lifetime.  We have seen increasing inequality in the present, despite the legacy of the New Deal and the efforts of the Great Society, both of which served to ameliorate some of the worst effect of the inequality that existed despite the rhetoric of America as the land of opportunity

We are seeing another phenomenon upon which I must also comment, and that is the re-legitimization of racism in many fors.  This predates the election of Barack Obama as President.  After all, the use of anti-immigrant rhetoric has been an increasing staple of some politicians for the better part of the past two decades, despite that fact the most recent Republican President was not hostile to the group at which this rhetoric was most often directed, Hispanics.  Certainly the use of race-rhetoric can be seen clearly as far back as Ronald Reagan beginning his general election campaign at the Neshoba County Fair.  It can be seen in some of the rhetoric and actions used in the Lee Atwater direction of the campaign of Bush 41.  Joe Arpaio and Tom Tancredo were spewing their hatred long before Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses.  \

That kind of attitude contributes to some of the inequality, because it legitimizes not addressing either the current disparities - in income, in education - but also the disparities of opportunity.   As Chen puts it in her final sentence,

The American myth of opportunity isn't necessarily obsolete, but in the face of systemic discrimination, pursuing the Dream means waking up from delusions of colorblindness.

America should be the land of opportunity.  Even those who do not yet fully participate in the American dream want to maintain the hope that they can be full participants.  We see this in the Japanese-Americans like the grandfather of Kristy6 Yamaguchi who served with distinction in WWII despite their families being locked up in concentration camps -  I did not say extermination camps - and denied their civil liberties EVEN THOUGH THEY WERE NATURAL BORN AMERICAN CITIZENS.  We see it in the Arab mother at the  tomb of her deceased soldier son, in a picture referred to by Colin Powell, despite the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim rhetoric still too common in our political discourse.

And we can remember it in the words of Langston Hughes, who wrote this

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

but who also wrote this:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

America is still NOT truly a land of opportunity.  And yet it can be.  If it fails to move in that direction, will it sag, will it explode?

The answer is up to us.


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