Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Opinion

Editorial: Challenging mobility assumptions

Even though social movements have delivered better career opportunities for women and minorities and government grants have made college more accessible, one thing has stayed constant: If you are growing up poor today, you appear to have the same odds of staying poor in adulthood that your grandparents did.

The upshot? Children growing up in America today are as just as likely — no more, no less — to climb the economic ladder as children born more than a half-century ago.

That's the bottom line of a landmark study from a group led by Harvard University's Raj Chetty, which suggests that any advances in opportunity provided by expanded social programs have been offset by other changes in economic conditions. Increased trade and advanced technology, for instance, have closed off traditional sources of middle-income jobs.

The findings also imply that who your parents are and how much they earn is more consequential for American youths today than ever before. That's because the difference between the bottom and the top of the economic ladder has grown much more stark, but climbing the ladder hasn't gotten any easier.

These findings add up to a surprising take on the status of the American Dream, and they cast Washington's debate about the consequences of economic inequality in a new light.

The paper suggests that "it is not true that mobility itself is getting lower," said Lawrence Katz, a Harvard economist. "What's really changed is the consequences of it. Because there's so much inequality, people born near the bottom tend to stay near the bottom, and that's much more consequential than it was 50 years ago."

Americans have always placed great faith in economic mobility, the idea that any child born into poverty can grow up to be middle class, or that a middle-class kid can grow up to be rich.

Chetty and his colleagues examined millions of anonymous earnings records and found that mobility has not changed appreciably since the 1970s.

Incorporating results from a previous study dating back to the 1950s, the authors concluded that "measures of social mobility have remained remarkably stable over the second half of the 20th century in the United States."

That finding implies mobility is stuck at a low rate, at least compared to other wealthy nations: It is much harder for a poor child born in America to climb into the rare air of the country's highest earners than it is for a similar child in, for example, Canada or Denmark.

David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, called the findings "a sort of Rorschach" test that will support many economists' preconceived notions about the effectiveness of government programs in providing opportunity.

Some could view the results as a failure of programs such as Pell grants, Head Start and nutritional supplements for children that are intended to promote mobility. Or, he said, "you can view this as: Social policies have fought market forces to a draw."

The findings from Chetty and his co-authors are likely to set off a new round of debate over mobility and inequality, which President Barack Obama recently called "the defining challenge of our time."

There's something in the paper to challenge both political parties' approaches to the issue. It suggests that both sides are wrong to talk about mobility declining. It explicitly calls into question the idea invoked by the Obama administration that widening inequality will depress mobility over time.

But the findings also suggest that Republicans are wrong to downplay inequality and focus solely on improving mobility.

© 2014 Washington Post

Comments
Editorial: A court victory for protecting Florida’s environment

Editorial: A court victory for protecting Florida’s environment

A Tallahassee judge has affirmed the overwhelming intent of Florida voters by ruling that state lawmakers have failed to comply with a constitutional amendment that is supposed to provide a specific pot of money to buy and preserve endangered lands. ...
Published: 06/18/18
Updated: 06/20/18
Editorial: Trump should stop taking children away from parents at the border

Editorial: Trump should stop taking children away from parents at the border

Innocent children should not be used as political pawns. That is exactly what the Trump administration is doing by cruelly prying young children away from their parents as these desperate families cross the Mexican border in search of a safer, better...
Published: 06/17/18
Updated: 06/19/18

Editorial: ATF should get tougher on gun dealers who violate the law

Gun dealers who break the law by turning a blind eye to federal licensing rules are as dangerous to society as people who have no right to a possess a firearm in the first place. Yet a recent report shows that the federal agency responsible for polic...
Published: 06/17/18
Updated: 06/18/18
Editorial: Encouraging private citizens to step up on transit

Editorial: Encouraging private citizens to step up on transit

The new grass-roots effort to put a transportation package before Hillsborough County voters in November faces a tough slog. Voters rejected a similar effort in 2010, and another in 2016 by elected officials never made it from the gate. But the lates...
Published: 06/15/18
Editorial: 40 years later, honoring remarkable legacy of Nelson Poynter

Editorial: 40 years later, honoring remarkable legacy of Nelson Poynter

Forty years ago today, Nelson Poynter died. He was the last individual to own this newspaper, and to keep the Times connected to this community, he did something remarkable. He gave it away.In his last years, Mr. Poynter recognized that sooner or lat...
Published: 06/15/18

There was no FBI anti-Trump conspiracy

The Justice Department released Thursday the highly anticipated report on the FBI’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe and other sensitive issues in the 2016 election. It is not the report President Donald Trump wanted. But there is enough i...
Published: 06/14/18
Updated: 06/15/18

Voter purge may be legal, but it’s also suppression

The Supreme Court’s ruling last Monday to allow Ohio’s purging of its voter rolls is difficult to dispute legally. While federal law prohibits removing citizens from voter rolls simply because they haven’t voted, Ohio’s purge is slightly different. T...
Published: 06/14/18
Updated: 06/15/18

Editorial: Free rides will serve as a test of whether the streetcar is serious transportation

Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to ride for free?This fall, the TECO Streetcar Line eliminates its $2.50-a-ride-fare, providing the best opportunity yet to see whether the system’s vintage streetcar replicas can serve as a legitimate transportation a...
Published: 06/14/18
Updated: 06/15/18

AT&T and the case for digital innovation

A good way to guarantee you’ll be wrong about something is to predict the future of technology. As in, "One day, we’ll all …" Experts can hazard guesses about artificial intelligence, driverless cars or the death of cable television, but technologica...
Published: 06/14/18
Editorial: State, nonprofits share obligation to help Hillsborough’s foster kids

Editorial: State, nonprofits share obligation to help Hillsborough’s foster kids

The Florida Department of Children and Families has correctly set a quick deadline for Hillsborough County’s main child welfare provider to correct its foster care program. For too long the same story has played out, where troubled teens who need fos...
Published: 06/14/18