I promised I’d follow up on this and—though it wasn’t a pinky shake (the most sacred promise in my house)—I do try to stay true to my word.
[These come from the mobility chapter I contributed to the 2008/09 version of the book State of Working America, an EPI publication.]
The first figure reflects some of the points from the NYT article this AM (see link above). Each bar represents a correlation between the incomes of fathers and sons, once the sons grow up. So this is a “how-far-does-the-apple-fall-from-the-tree” measure. And larger correlations mean closer apples.
Basically, the more you can look at someone’s economic situation at birth and accurately predict where they’ll end up, the less mobility there is.
What’s always fascinating about these comparisons is that there’s so much more intergenerational mobility in other countries, including those we here in the US often accuse of being too socialistic, not capitalistic enough, with too much government in the economy. Such arguments tend to be motivated by the belief that because these economies run on more of a public/private hybrid model, they dampen people’s incentives to work hard and get ahead. These statistics challenge such simplistic conclusions.
Next, two figures that are particularly important in terms of the factors responsible for tamping down mobility, particularly for lower-income children. They both show that educational opportunity—a critical component of upward mobility for kids from less advantaged backgrounds—is itself inequitably distributed.
I know—not exactly shocking. But to hear people talk about all the unfettered opportunity for anyone to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, it’s useful to present a little bit of evidence that we are not nearly the meritocracy that such an argument implies.
The first picture just compares the family income of kids in the entering classes at top universities versus community colleges. Only 3% of kids entering the top-tier schools come from the low end of the income scale; almost three-quarters come from the top. The community college entering classes, however, are much more uniformly distributed.
But it’s the next chart that’s the real killer. This one controls for not just income, but cognitive ability as well, based on test scores in eighth grade. It then follows these kids over time and asks what share completed college. It is thus a good test of the meritocracy theory.
If, in fact, merit was determinative, high-testing poor kids would have completion rates similar to high-testing rich kids. But instead, what we actually find is that the highest testing poor kids have the same completion rates as the lowest testing rich kids (both are at about 30%). Or, a smart rich kid is 2.5 times more likely to complete college that a comparably smart poor kid (74%/29%).
That ain’t right…it just ain’t right. It’s not good for these kids, their families, nor for the overall economy. We simply can’t afford to waste potential like this.
And it will take public policy to address and correct such inequities, so we’d kinda need a functioning federal government that’s amply funded.