Conservatives and Liberals Are Both Concerned by the Collapse of Social Mobility

The American Dream Has Moved Abroad

I noted in 2010 that the American Dream has moved abroad … since the likelihood of a rags-to-riches success story has become higher in many other parts of the world.

MSNBC’s Red Tape blog noted yesterday:

Upward mobility … once upon a time was a defining characteristic of the American way of life.


We can all agree that America isn’t America without the Frontier spirit, the social contract that if you work hard, there’s a brighter tomorrow. That spirit is in serious danger… right now.

The New York Times confirmed this collapse in American mobility on Wednesday:

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.


At least five large studies in recent years have found the United States to be less mobile than comparable nations.


“Family background plays more of a role in the U.S. than in most comparable countries,” Professor Corak said in an interview.

Conservatives and Liberals Are Both Concerned by the Collapse of Mobility

Conservatives tend to be more tolerant of inequality than liberals (although conservatives are also offended when levels of inequality become too great; and see this).

But as the New York Times notes, conservatives are as disturbed as liberals by the collapse of social mobility in modern America:

Rick Santorum … warned this 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, wrotethat “most Western European and English-speaking nations have higher rates of mobility.” Even Representative Paul D. Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican who argues that overall mobility remains high, recently wrote that “mobility from the very bottom up” is “where the United States lags behind.”


“It’s becoming conventional wisdom that the U.S. does not have as much mobility as most other advanced countries,” said Isabel V. Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution. “I don’t think you’ll find too many people who will argue with that.”


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.”

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