More Mobility Pictures and Words

January 5th, 2012 at 6:29 pm

 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.

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6 comments in reply to "More Mobility Pictures and Words"

  1. Bearpaw says:

    “… 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%).”

    Thus, George W. Bush.


    • Fred Donaldson says:

      More poor kids drop out because they are working jobs and don’t spend as much time on homework. Also, much of college assumes a certain background that is not common in poor neighborhoods, and fitting in is difficult when you are not at the same social level – causing some depression at just being in college with the elites.


  2. Michael says:

    “dampen incentives to work hard” is a multisyllabic way to say “POCs are lazy.”


  3. Th says:

    I would really like to see someone explain the US to Canada variance. There may be lessons to learn from that analysis. .47 to .19 is an astounding difference for two countries so similar in many ways.


  4. the buckaroo says:

    …it’s the light Louie in our humble abode. As to the subject, it plainly shows that equal opportunity must be enhanced by equal conditions for the opportunity to be equal…and that is just not in the cards, is it?


  5. Evan Sorem says:

    I’ve read this post four times now and I think it has finally sunk in. Really?

    America – the land of opportunity.

    America – where anyone can make it.

    America – land of the free and home of the brave.

    That’s the America I want. That’s the America I thought we were supposed to have. But that’s not the America we have.

    Who is going to fix this? The GOP. Nope, I suspect they couldn’t even agree that this is a problem. The Dems. Doubtful. A few committed citizens. Possibly.

    This country was founded on the idea of eliminating the aristocracy. It’s back.


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