America No Longer the Land of Opportunity?
by tgeraghty, Tue Apr 26, 2005 at 01:23:57 AM EDT
When faced with this reality, Conservatives will typically argue that in a country like the United States, economic inequality doesn't matter, because economic mobility is high here. People in the United States can more easily move upward in the income distribution compared to other advanced countries.
For the record, here is some data on economic inequality; note the apparent close correlation between egalitarianism and social mobility:
Contrary to conservative arguments, the United States not only has the highest levels of economic inequality, but also the lowest levels of economic mobility among advanced economies. Americans whose parents are at the bottom end of the income distribution tend to stay there with higher probability than elsewhere. The Scandinavian social democracies and Canada, by contrast, have not only the lowest levels of income inequality, but also the highest economic mobility. Not only are those at the bottom end of the income distribution far better off than in an economy like the U. S., but also the economic position of one's parents matters much less for the well-being of the typical Swede, Dane, or Canadian than it does for the average Brit or American.
As Britain's Independent put it
If there is any silver lining for Americans, it is that, unlike Britain, economic immobility and income persistence to not seem to have gotten worse here over the past generation or so.
Nonetheless, there now seems to be a direct link between economic inequality and social mobility, as the Independent reports:
According to Reuters:
The study's authors emphasize inequalities in educational opportunity. Again from Reuters:
And from the Times:
Although the study doesn't talk about it so much, social mobility also depends on the state of the labor market, as the above Reuters quote implies. Access to high-quality education is one thing, but you also need the higher-paying jobs. This is where the stronger labor unions, higher minimum wages, and the more expansive welfare state of the European social democracies make a difference by reducing labor market inequalities. From the report, this is especially important in explaining low economic mobility in the United States:
In the United States, racial differences in economic mobility are more important (probably also related to educational and labor market inequalities, I would guess). From the report:
Finally, one of the study's coauthors argues that globalization is also a culprit:
So yes, Virginia, Horatio Alger is alive and well. He's just living in Oslo now.
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