Can the Right Afford to Acknowledge Low Upward Mobility in the U.S.?

Stephen Herzenberg |

Michael Laracy of the Annie E. Casey Foundation emailed around an opinion piece by Fareed Zakaria on the boffo new study on upward mobility in the United States. The Zakaria piece appeared in the Amazon, I mean Bezos, I mean Washington Post.

Zakaria summarizes the study by Harvard and Berkeley economists that I wrote about in the Harrisburg Patriot-News and on which we released a briefing paper the mostly positive findings for Pennsylvania’s 12 regions.

The Zakaria take on the study doesn’t note the importance of the SIZE of the middle class to mobility, an important omission. But most of the piece is a faithful rendition of the same findings we reported.

I was struck by the opening line of Zakaria’s article: “If there’s one issue on which both the left and right agree, it is the crisis of declining mobility.” Is that true? Does the right really agree? Can it concede this factual reality?

The line made me think back 10 years or so to when the right hadn’t even acknowledged rising income inequality. At some point since then, the facts on inequality became so compelling that the right had to switch from being “inequality deniers” to being inequality apologists. One line of apology: inequality is associated with faster growth — restrain inequality and you’ll slash growth. (This isn’t factually the case, but never mind.)

A second line: inequality at a point in time doesn’t matter because individuals bounce around — there’s fluctuation in economic status year to year, and individuals often start low when young but then rise to the top. Rags to riches. We can all be millionaires. Don’t tax the rich because I’m going to be rich one day. Etc., etc.

It’s one thing to acknowledge income inequality.

But I’m not sure the right can afford to acknowledge that mobility has declined and is much lower in the United States than many other countries.

Why not? If the right makes this acknowledgement, it undermines a key explanation for why inequality is OK. More important, mobility and the American Dream are so central to the right’s own narrative that acknowledging mobility is in trouble unavoidably prompts questions about why — and about how to revive mobility. And the accumulating evidence on why — from the Harvard-Berkeley study and other recent academic analyses — is a disaster for the right’s policy prescriptions. That’s why our brief on the Harvard-Berkeley study somewhat gleefully (OK, the glee was hidden in our usual sobriety within the piece itself) pointed out that the study was a searing indictment of the “Southern Strategy” (aka, “the right’s playbook”), which is an unmitigated disaster for upward mobility.

All of this reinforces my optimism that the new and growing evidence on upward mobility, and what drives it, could be a game changer for the U.S. policy debate. And, by God, do we need it.

A closing practical point. The Zakaria commentary is also useful because it has great links to two recent academic studies by Miles Corak that examine the level of mobility in different countries. One of the academic articles appeared in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. The second analyzes mobility and institutions in Australia (where you’ll remember my daughter Charlotte benefits from a high minimum wage), the UK (where I was born), Canada (which featured in my dissertation), and the United States.

What’s that, you say? It’s not about me? Brett Banditelli told me that successful blogs are all about the blogger. And I always listen to Brett.