Americans believe the United States is a land of opportunity, a country where people who work hard enough can get ahead. The faith in one’s ability to improve one’s economic circumstances is especially strong in the South. Ironically, contends Patricia Cohen with the New York Times, nowhere is the gap between perception and reality greater than in the South.
“For moving from the bottom of the income ladder to the top, the South offers the worst odds in the United States,” writes Cohen. “But it’s also the region where people are most optimistic about the prospects.”
(The gap between perception and reality is especially wide in Virginia, according to data presented in the article. Virginians estimated that 14.5% of Americans born into the bottom income quintile make it into the ranks of the top quintile as adults. The actual figure in Virginia is 6.3%.
The persistent belief in the U.S. as a land of opportunity has political implications, as Cohen observes. Liberals and progressive, who contend that the odds are stacked against ordinary Americans, argue that government intervention — from raising the minimum wage to providing free college for all — is needed to level the playing field. Conservatives, they suggest, over-estimate social mobility and under-estimate the need for palliative action. And evidence drummed up by Harvard researchers and presented in the NY Times article appears to back them up.
It will surprise no one to read that I believe the researchers who compiled the data framed their findings in such a way as to confirm pre-existing beliefs.
Look at how the researchers have defined intergenerational mobility: movement from the bottom quintile all the way to the top quintile. That’s not mobility — that’s hyper-mobility. Sure, Americans have always admired Horatio Alger stories but they’ve known that rags-to-riches stories are the province of a celebrated lucky few. The faith in America as a land of opportunity is based on more realistic expectations, the belief that parents can sacrifice to create opportunities for their children, and that the children who work hard will fare better than them. For most ethnic groups the upward climb typically took place over two, three or four generations — from the bottom quintile, say, to the fourth quintile for the second generation, the third quintile next generation, and so on.
In other words, researchers have measured a rarefied definition of intergenerational mobility that makes it appear as if upward mobility were more limited than, in fact, it is. What percentage of Americans manage to graduate from high school, earn a marketable skill in community college, and climb from the bottom income quintile to the middle quintile? The researchers don’t tell us. Until we compile that data, the argument remains unproven that America is a land of throttled opportunity.
As for the argument that opportunities are particularly constricted in the South, the NY Times article never considers the implications of U.S. internal migration data. According to North American Moving Services data, Florida (“intergenerational mobility” of 6.2%), North Carolina (4.6%), South Carolina (4.0%) and Tennessee (5.2%) are among the top eight state experiencing the greatest domestic in-migration in 2018. If opportunities for upward mobility are so limited in the South, how come so many people are moving there? (Sadly, as Virginia adopts the political hue of its northern neighbors, the state has shifted from being a net importer of domestic households to a net exporter in recent years.)
No question, there are barriers to upward economic mobility — poor public schools, unaffordable higher education, unaffordable housing, and dysfunctional subcultures of poverty. These are real problems, and we need to deal with them. But millions of Americans manage to overcome the odds each generation. Perhaps we should spend more time examining how they do so rather than convincing ourselves that their climb out of poverty is an illusion.
(Hat tip: Thanks to Stephen Moret for pointing me to the article. He bears no responsibility for the conclusions I draw from it.)There are currently no comments highlighted.