The end of upward mobility?

…two of the nation’s newspapers — The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal — are running extensive multipart series that paint a much darker picture.  The U.S., rather than being a land of opportunity, these stories argue, is increasingly a class-bound place of immobility and stratification, where it’s becoming ever harder for the people at the bottom to move up…

Rather than agonizing over relative comparisons, it may be better to concentrate on the simpler and intuitively satisfying concept of absolute "mobility," — whether you are doing better than your parents did, or whether the living standards of a whole group of people are rising over time.  From this perspective, there are signs that this past decade has had more upward mobility compared with the previous two decades…

There’s yet another big problem: we actually know very little about whether relative mobility increased or decreased during the New Economy decade because complete data don’t exist yet.  With a few exceptions, most studies stop with the mid- or late 1990s.

Here’s what we do know: Over the past decade, virtually every traditionally disadvantaged group made gains in absolute terms.  Take, for example, families headed by immigrants who entered the country in the 1980s.  The poverty rate for such families dropped sharply, from 26.6% in 1995 to 16.4% in 2003…Similarly, a combination of welfare reform and tight labor markets helped drive down the poverty rate for female-headed households with children from 46.1% in 1993 to 35.5% in 2003….it beats the total lack of progress in the previous decade.

That is from 20 June 2005, Business Week, by Michael Mandel.  Here is a new book on who gets ahead in low-wage labor markets.  Here is my previous post on Horatio Alger.  Here is my previous post on the family as a source of inequality.


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