project led by Markus Jantti, an economist at a Swedish university, found that 42 percent of American men raised in the bottom fifth of incomes stay there as adults. That shows a level of persistent disadvantage much higher than in Denmark (25 percent) and Britain (30 percent) — a country famous for its class constraints.
Meanwhile, just 8 percent of American men at the bottom rose to the top fifth. That compares with 12 percent of the British and 14 percent of the Danes.
Despite frequent references to the United States as a classless society, about 62 percent of Americans (male and female) raised in the top fifth of incomes stay in the top two-fifths, according to research by the Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Similarly, 65 percent born in the bottom fifth stay in the bottom two-fifths.
By emphasizing the influence of family background, the studies not only challenge American identity but speak to the debate about inequality. While liberals often complain that the United States has unusually large income gaps, many conservatives have argued that the system is fair because mobility is especially high, too: everyone can climb the ladder. Now the evidence suggests that America is not only less equal, but also less mobile.
John Bridgeland, a former aide to President George W. Bush who helped start Opportunity Nation, an effort to seek policy solutions, said he was “shocked” by the international comparisons. “Republicans will not feel compelled to talk about income inequality,” Mr. Bridgeland said. “But they will feel a need to talk about a lack of mobility — a lack of access to the American Dream.”
While Europe differs from the United States in culture and demographics, a more telling comparison may be with Canada, a neighbor with significant ethnic diversity. Miles Corak, an economist at the University of Ottawa, found that just 16 percent of Canadian men raised in the bottom tenth of incomes stayed there as adults, compared with 22 percent of Americans. Similarly, 26 percent of American men raised at the top tenth stayed there, but just 18 percent of Canadians.
“Family background plays more of a role in the U.S. than in most comparable countries,” Professor Corak said in an interview.
Skeptics caution that the studies measure “relative mobility” — how likely children are to move from their parents’ place in the income distribution. That is different from asking whether they have more money. Most Americans have higher incomes than their parents because the country has grown richer.
Some conservatives say this measure, called absolute mobility, is a better gauge of opportunity. A Pew study found that 81 percent of Americans have higher incomes than their parents (after accounting for family size). There is no comparable data on other countries.
Since they require two generations of data, the studies also omit immigrants, whose upward movement has long been considered an American strength. “If America is so poor in economic mobility, maybe someone should tell all these people who still want to come to the U.S.,” said Stuart M. Butler, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation...
While Americans have boasted of casting off class since Poor Richard’s Almanac, until recently there has been little data.
Pioneering work in the early 1980s by Gary S. Becker, a Nobel laureate in economics, found only a mild relationship between fathers’ earnings and those of their sons. But when better data became available a decade later, another prominent economist, Gary Solon, found the bond twice as strong. Most researchers now estimate the “elasticity” of father-son earnings at 0.5, which means if one man earns $100,000 more than another, his sons would earn $50,000 more on average than the sons of the poorer man.
In 2006 Professor Corak reviewed more than 50 studies of nine countries. He ranked Canada, Norway, Finland and Denmark as the most mobile, with the United States and Britain roughly tied at the other extreme. Sweden, Germany, and France were scattered across the middle.
The causes of America’s mobility problem are a topic of dispute — starting with the debates over poverty. The United States maintains a thinner safety net than other rich countries, leaving more children vulnerable to debilitating hardships.
Poor Americans are also more likely than foreign peers to grow up with single mothers. That places them at an elevated risk of experiencing poverty and related problems, a point frequently made by Mr. Santorum, who surged into contention in the Iowa caucuses. The United States also has uniquely high incarceration rates, and a longer history of racial stratification than its peers.
“The bottom fifth in the U.S. looks very different from the bottom fifth in other countries,” said Scott Winship, a researcher at the Brookings Institution, who wrote the article for National Review. “Poor Americans have to work their way up from a lower floor.”
A second distinguishing American trait is the pay tilt toward educated workers. While in theory that could help poor children rise — good learners can become high earners — more often it favors the children of the educated and affluent, who have access to better schools and arrive in them more prepared to learn.
“Upper-income families can invest more in their children’s education and they may have a better understanding of what it takes to get a good education,” said Eric Wanner, president of the Russell Sage Foundation, which gives grants to social scientists.
The United States is also less unionized than many of its peers, which may lower wages among the least skilled, and has public health problems, like obesity and diabetes, which can limit education and employment.
Perhaps another brake on American mobility is the sheer magnitude of the gaps between rich and the rest — the theme of the Occupy Wall Street protests, which emphasize the power of the privileged to protect their interests. Countries with less equality generally have less mobility...
Thursday, January 5, 2012
More on social mobility in the United States as compared to Europe
Jason DeParle at the New York Times: