Why Progressives Need To Talk About Economic Mobility If They Want To Fix Inequality

The conservative trickle-down approach to the economy assumes that maximizing rewards for those at the top is the path to both growth and prosperity for the society as a whole. If inequality rises, that does not matter, runs the conservative argument, because absolute levels of prosperity will rise for everyone even if the top gains more.

The progressive approach to the economy is radically different. This approach posits, based on a mass of accumulating evidence, that inequality is not a benign byproduct of growth, but rather a toxic barrier to both middle class prosperity and strong growth in general. In other words, high levels of inequality interfere with the both the quality and quantity of growth experienced by a society. Hence the idea that an economic agenda must concentrate on lifting up the middle class to generate both broadly-shared prosperity and fast growth. The two goals are inextricably linked and one cannot be attained without the other.

Of course, the progressive agenda may be the correct one, but that does not mean it can be easily sold to the public and politicians. It would require a serious reorientation of national priorities and considerable investments in areas like education and infrastructure — spending that is likely to meet considerable resistance in the current environment. Therefore, the question of how to frame the agenda in the political marketplace is key.

One obvious approach is to frame the agenda directly as a means of reducing inequality. Call this the redistributionist approach. This approach is not without merit. Start with awareness of and views about economic inequality.


There is no doubt Americans are aware of rising inequality. In the Pew Research Center’s 2012 American Values survey, respondents were asked if they agreed that today the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. About three-quarters (76 percent) agreed, while just 23 percent disagreed. And the public believes it’s not just the poor who are losing ground to the rich — it’s the middle class as well. In the same survey three-quarters (76 percent) also say the gap between the standards of living of the middle class and the rich grew over the last decade, compared to just 16 percent who think it narrowed.

No wonder that a poll from October 2011 conducted by Pulse Opinion Research for The Hill found that two in three Americans believe that the middle class is now shrinking. And in a Democracy Corps post-2010 election survey, the public endorsed the idea that America is no longer a country with a rising middle class by 57–36. Finally, an October, 2007 poll conducted by political scientists Benjamin Page and Lawrence Jacobs for their book, Class War: What Americans Really Think about Economic Inequality, found 81 percent of the public saying that the gap in wealth between wealthy Americans and the middle class has grown over the last 25 years, compared to just 10 percent who said it has remained the same and 8 percent who said it had gotten smaller.

Of course high awareness of inequality does not necessarily mean that Americans disapprove of it. But further data show that Americans’ high awareness of inequality is indeed matched by high levels of disapproval. For example, in a Pew poll in December, 2011, 61% said our economy unfairly favors wealthy Americans, while only 36% thought the system was “generally fair.” And in an ABC News/The Washington Post poll from January of this year, 55% of Americans said that economic unfairness that favors the wealthy is a bigger problem than overregulation by the government that hurts economic growth. Only 35% of respondents believed the latter was the bigger problem.

Moreover, in an October, 2011 nationwide survey conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the public expressed the following views:

  • 81 percent of those surveyed agreed that “Regular people work harder and harder for less and less, while Wall Street CEOs enjoy bigger bonuses than ever,”
  • 75 percent agreed that “Our economy works for Wall Street CEOs but not for the middle class. America isn’t supposed to only work for the top 1 percent”
  • 72 percent agreed that “right now, 99 percent of Americans only see the rich getting richer and everyone else getting crushed. And they’re right.”

In earlier data from the Page/Jacobs survey, 72 percent agreed that differences in income in America are too large, compared to only 27 percent who disagreed. And 59 percent disagreed that large differences in income are necessary for America’s prosperity. In an October 2008 Gallup poll, 58 percent thought money and wealth should be more evenly distributed among a larger percentage of the people, compared to 37 percent who thought it was fairly distributed.


None of these survey findings are idiosyncratic. Careful academic reviews of public opinion on inequality over time by sociologists Lane Kenworthy and Leslie McCall indicate that Americans have typically been aware of inequality, sensitive to its increase over time and generally disapprove of the levels it has reached on our society.

So, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the public is both aware of rising inequality and disapproves of it. Naturally enough, given these sentiments, the public would also like to see something done about this problem. In a November 2011 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute, 60 percent agreed that “our society would be better off if the distribution of wealth was more equal.” And 63 percent believed that “we need to dramatically reduce inequalities between rich and poor, whites and people of color and men and women.”

But it does not follow from all this — awareness, disapproval and the felt need for action — that the public would necessarily be happiest with a direct attack on inequality as implied by the redistributionist frame. On the contrary, in the February, 2009 Pew economic mobility survey, by an overwhelming 71–21 margin, respondents though it was more important to ensure everyone has a fair chance of improving their economic standing than to reduce inequality in America.

That preference for economic mobility over direct mitigation of inequality is also suggested by results of another question in the same survey. By 71–27, Americans agreed that greater economic inequality means that it is more difficult for those at the bottom of the ladder to move up the ladder. That is what Americans object to most vigorously about economic inequality: that it makes economic mobility more difficult. In other words, for most Americans what we have is not an inequality crisis but a mobility crisis. This is confirmed by results of a recent series of focus groups on inequality conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. Participants tended not to connect their economic difficulties with wealth and income inequality but bemoaned, more than anything else, the rising cost of middle class expenses like housing, transportation, medical care and college relative to lagging wages and salaries. This middle class squeeze, which prevents them from moving ahead in life, is what primarily concerns them.

The mobility crisis touches something very, very important to Americans. Americans retain a deep faith in their personal ability to get ahead even in adverse circumstances, provided they have a fair opportunity to do so. Here are some results from a survey I helped conduct for the Economic Policy Institute in March, 2006. That poll found that 69% thought they had already attained the American Dream or would attain it in their lifetimes (note: this figure was actually higher — 75% — in a CAP poll conducted in February, 2009 after the financial crisis had hit). And while 60% rated themselves between poor and middle class now on a 10 point economic scale (1–5), 59% said they would be between middle class and wealthy (6 to 10) within 10 years. Finally, while 80% described themselves as working class, middle class, or lower class today, 44% believed it was very or somewhat likely that they would become wealthy in the future.

This personal optimism can and does co-exist with negative views about the overall state of the economy. In the EPI poll, respondents were asked whether economic uncertainty and inequality or success in achieving the American Dream characterizes the economy today. Here is the choice posed by the question:

  • Most people today face increasing uncertainty about employment, with stagnant incomes, paying more for health care, taxes, and retirement, while those at the top have booming incomes and lower taxes


  • Our economy faces ups and downs, but most people can expect to better themselves, see rising incomes, find good jobs and provide economic security for their families. The American dream is very much alive.

By 2:1 (64%-32%), respondents selected the first statement about increasing uncertainty as coming closer to their views. But of that group that said that increasing uncertainty, rather than achieving the American Dream, characterized the economy, an amazing 63% nevertheless thought that they themselves would achieve the Dream.


This personal optimism and aspirational outlook is broadly shared across social groups. For example, 69% of the white working class and 74 % of the white middle class believed they have reached or will reach the American Dream, as did 67% of women, 72% of men, 66% of blacks, and 74% of Hispanics (blacks and Hispanics were less likely than whites to believe they had already attained the Dream, but made up for it by being more likely to believe they will attain it in the future).

This aspirational outlook helps explain a stunning finding from the Page/Jacobs survey. A whopping 97 percent agreed (including 85 percent who strongly agreed) that everyone in America should have equal opportunities to get ahead. This is as close to a consensual viewpoint as you find in American public opinion, suggesting the power of a mobility, rather than redistributionist, frame for the progressive economic agenda.

The mobility frame has a strong connection in the public mind to the need for government action. In the 2011 Pew economic mobility survey, an overwhelming 83 percent said they wanted the government to either provide opportunities for the poor and middle class to improve their economic situation or prevent them from falling behind or both. In the same survey, education, a central part of the progressive economic agenda, loomed especially large as a way the government should help provide those opportunities. Ensuring all children get a quality education was rated the highest among options to help people get ahead (88 percent rated it as one of the most important/very important). And improving the quality of elementary and secondary education and making college more affordable were two of the top four options for preventing downward mobility (84 and 80 percent, respectively, one of the most effective/very effective).

Other options that rated highly in this or the 2009 Pew economic mobility survey included promoting job creation, providing basic needs to the very poor, reducing the costs of health care, helping small businesses and business owners, more job training programs and education for adult workers, making it easier to save for retirement and early childhood learning programs. All these mobility-promoting steps are central, of course, to the progressive economic agenda.

In conclusion, the mobility frame lends itself to an “aspirational populism” that makes explicit the argument that current levels of inequality are not just unfair but directly interfere with mobility and economic growth. Not only is there a growing body of economic evidence for the argument but it accords well with the common sense of voters. And perhaps the common sense of an increasing number of politicians.

As the President himself has remarked (April, 2012 speech in Florida):

In this country, prosperity has never trickled down from the wealthy few. Prosperity has always come from the bottom up, from a strong and growing middle class. That’s how a generation who went to college on the GI Bill — including my grandfather — helped build the most prosperous economy that the world has ever known. That’s why a CEO like Henry Ford made a point to pay his workers enough money so that they could buy the cars that they were building. Because he understood, look, there’s no point in me having all this and then nobody can buy my cars. I’ve got to pay my workers enough so that they buy the cars, and that in turn creates more business and more prosperity for everybody.

That about says it all.