U.S. Poor Less Likely to Rise Ranks than Poor in Comparable Countries

Jason DeParle of the New York Times highlights a troubling development: The country of the frequently cited--and much lauded--American Dream is struggling to provide opportunities for economic mobility to its poorest citizens. America is falling behind comparable countries, and "Americans [today] enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe."

As Occupy Wall Street and the recession that helped bring about the movement's rise gain the public's attention, even the political right has started to acknowledge the seriousness of class differences. The Times comments: "Liberal commentators have long emphasized class, but the attention on the right is largely new."

DeParle identifies deep poverty and problems in the educational system as two central reasons for America's failure to sufficiently provide the necessary opportunities for social mobility. According to DeParle, the former "leaves poor children starting especially far behind," while "the unusually large premiums that American employers pay for college degrees...increases the importance of family background and stymies people with less schooling."
He cites a project led by Swedish economist Markus Jantti, one that DeParle says "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."

Evidence that upward mobility is harder to come by may be especially bad news for the political right, which often responds to liberal complaints of economic inequality by pointing at the high mobility rate. DeParle writes: "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, however, "evidence suggests that America is not only less equal, but also less mobile."

A comparison with Canada, a country closer to the United States in its culture and demographics, is similarly discouraging. "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."
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