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Opportunity Lost – No Longer the Land of Opportunity? [OPINION]

We are not the country that we like to think we are, at least not anymore. For all the problems that have been present throughout the history of these United States, there was always redemption in the fact that we were the land of opportunity.

It may not have been available equally, notably people of color had to face additional barriers that white Americans did not, but given the state of the rest of the world, the US was the closest thing to a meritocracy that existed on this planet. Brains, talent, or just plain hard work would take you farther here than they would anywhere else.

Sadly this is no longer true. Though they may differ in their approach and in the final rankings that they produce, the trend is clear. Study after study shows that many of the other advanced economies allow greater mobility than does the US.

Intergenerational income mobility can be measured in different ways, but the point is the same. The best predictor of what income quintile (top fifth, bottom fifth etc.) that any person will ultimately be in is the quintile that person’s father was in.
Obviously, it isn’t a perfect predictor; some people move up, some even move down. The question is how often that happens, and unfortunately for us, the answer is now less frequently than it does in a number of other countries, like Canada and most of northern Europe.

The reason why this is so is not exactly a mystery. Right-wingers have convinced themselves, and go to great lengths to try to convince others, that big government creates a so-called culture of dependence that stifles opportunity and does little to combat poverty. All that bluster is merely propaganda though; there are facts of the matter to consider.

The reality is that the robust European welfare states that the right decries as evil socialism simply do a better job at eliminating poverty and, as it turns out, at cultivating socio-economic mobility.

The problem isn’t just a country to country comparison. Research by the Economic Policy Institute finds significant differences in income mobility within the US.

As you probably could have guessed, race is clearly at issue, but so are other factors that properly run and well-funded government can influence. As it turns out, poor kids do better when they are not all lumped together in underfunded schools, but instead get to attend the same schools as middle class families.

Also unsurprisingly, access to good public transportation systems allows poor people to live and work where they couldn’t without a car, which results in greater upward mobility.

These are the kinds of problems that effective taxing, spending and regulation can fix.

Thirty-two years of Reaganomics have taken their toll. Wait, didn’t we have a couple of Democrats elected to two terms during that time?

Yes, and to be fair their approaches have been watered down and less damaging then their Republican brethren, but it was Bill Clinton who crafted welfare reform, and Barack Obama who is ready to serve up social security to achieve a “grand bargain”. Democrats they may be, but neither Clinton nor Obama challenged the fallacies that Reaganomics is built upon or managed to reverse its regressive tide.

This is particularly distressing given their biographies.

You could expect George W. Bush to not understand the difficulties of socio-economic mobility. He was born into the 1%, and the pattern of failing upward that culminated in such a mediocre man being handed the Presidency, (a job he was so clearly incapable of performing) is the most clear cut example of how crucial a father’s income and connections are.

The fathers of Clinton and Obama bequeathed them none of those advantages, so one would expect they would better understand the need to level the playing field and prioritize that accordingly.

Ultimately though, the President does not get to set policy on his own. With most Congressional Republicans more worried about facing a tea party primary challenger on their right than they are about facing a Democrat in the general election, we are not likely to see any progress on limited economic mobility any time soon.

We can hope that people will turn out to the midterm elections and vote their economic interests, but we need to demand more than hope, we need results.

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