Benjamin Franklin did it. Henry Ford did it. And US life is built on the faith that others can do it, too: rise from humble origins to economic heights. “Movin’ on up,” George Jefferson-style, is not only a sitcom song, but a civil religion.
However, many researchers have reached a conclusion that turns conventional wisdom on its head: Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe. The mobility gap has been widely discussed in academic circles, but a sour season of mass unemployment and street protests has moved the discussion toward center stage.
Former US senator Rick Santorum, a Republican US presidential hopeful, said in the fall that movement “up into the middle income is actually greater, the mobility in Europe, than it is in America.”
National Review, a conservative thought leader, wrote: “Most Western European and English-speaking nations have higher rates of mobility.”
Even US Representative Paul Ryan, a Republican who argues that overall mobility remains high, recently wrote that “mobility from the very bottom up” is “where the United States lags behind.”
Liberal commentators have long emphasized class, but the attention on the right is largely new.
“It’s becoming conventional wisdom that the US does not have as much mobility as most other advanced countries,” Brookings Institution economist Isabel Sawhill said. “I don’t think you’ll find too many people who will argue with that.”
One reason for the mobility gap may be the depth of US poverty, which leaves poor children starting especially far behind. Another may be the unusually large premiums that US employers pay for college degrees. Since children generally follow their parents’ educational trajectory, that premium increases the importance of family background and stymies people with less schooling.
At least five large studies in recent years have found the US to be less mobile than comparable nations. A project led by Markus Jantti, an economist at a Swedish university, found that 42 percent of US 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 US 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 US 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 US identity but speak to the debate about inequality. While liberals often complain that the US 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 the US is not only less equal, but also less mobile.
John Bridgeland, a former aide to former US president George W. Bush who helped start Opportunity Nation, an effort to seek policy solutions, said he was “shocked” by the international comparisons.