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Social Mobility in America

By Matthew Yglesias on January 11, 2010 at 12:14 pm

"Social Mobility in America"

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Matt Zeitlin flags an important remark by Florida tea party Senate candidate Marco Rubio in a recent NYT Magazine profile:

He jackhammers his message about America’s exceptional status in the world. “This is the only society in history where your future is not determined by where you were born,”he said. “I believe that the United States of America is the greatest society in the history of humanity.”

The conservative view that the United States is the home par excellence is interesting because I’m pretty sure it’s something they’re not lying about. It’s a source of genuine confusion. But as Matt says, it’s completely false:

Bhashkar Mazumder, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, has a paper which says that “Using administrative data containing the earnings histories of parents and children,the IGE is estimated to be around 0.6. This suggests that the United States is substantially less mobile than previous research indicated.” And, “estimates of intergenerational mobility are significantly lower for families with little or no wealth.”

He also points to CAP’s research on the subject:

By international standards, the United States has an unusually low level of intergenerational mobility: our parents’ income is highly predictive of our incomes as adults. Intergenerational mobility in the United States is lower than in France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway and Denmark. Among high-income countries for which comparable estimates are available, only the United Kingdom had a lower rate of mobility than the United States.

mobility 1

And you don’t need to take my word for it either, the Economist—an outfit with right-wing views on economic matters, but that’s also international in its outlook and thus not blinded by the solipsism of the American right—has covered this in detail.

This one stat isn’t the be-all and end-all of mobility. One nice thing about the United States and social mobility is that compared to most European countries (but not Canada or Australia, or for that matter Sweden in Europe) it’s easier for foreigners to move here and make their way. Still, the facts are the facts. The ex ante level of inequality in the United States makes social mobility hard, and we’re not doing anything like the kinds of investments in child nutrition, early education, etc. that could make up for it ex post.

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