Moving On Up and Hitting a Wall: Social Mobility in the U.S. and Europe

By Michelle Chen Feb 11, 2010

America: land of opportunity… if you’re lucky enough to be born into one. The crumbling of the American Dream is in plain view across the country, especially in the urban centers and desolate ghost towns that have long been hollowed of their economic promise. A new comparative study shows just how far America’s mythology has slipped on a global scale. According a report on social mobility published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD], the United States ranks pretty poorly among industrialized nations on intergenerational advancement–that is, the ability to transcend the socioeconomic class, income level, and educational attainment of your family. So that whole bootstraps thing? It looks like that quintessential self-made man is more at home in Norway than Our Town. In patterns of socioeconomic gains across generations, the United States ranked on par with France, Italy and the United Kingdom on some measures. Some trends were generally constant throughout the countries studied, such as the correlation between educational attainment and fathers’ and sons’ wages. And some socioeconomic barriers that are uniquely, and shamefully, American:

Mobility in earnings across pairs of fathers and sons is particularly low in France, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States, while mobility is higher in the Nordic countries, Australia and Canada…. The influence of parental socio-economic status on students’ achievement in secondary education is particularly strong in Belgium, France and the United States, while it is weaker in some Nordic countries, as well as in Canada and Korea. Moreover, in many OECD countries, including all the large continental European ones, students’ achievement is strongly influenced by their school environment…. in the United Kingdom, Italy, the United States and France… at least 40% of the economic advantage that high-earnings fathers have over low-earnings fathers is transmitted to their sons.

The findings expose the entrenchment of a class hierarchy even in supposedly modern, diverse democracies. It seems inheritance is still a major driver of opportunity, even in the land of the free. America does stand out among our more regressive European brethren, however, in that we utterly lack the social safety nets that have served as a buffer against structural inequality. While class divisions in France or England may be frustrating in terms of individual opportunity, lower-class status for the French and British is far less likely to result in a family death sentence due to lack of health care. Perhaps because of the countries studied vary widely in their demographic mix, the study does not explore in detail how race and ethnicity track socioeconomic status and by extension, intergenerational mobility. As a singularly American institution, institutional racism intersects with and sometimes trumps class divides. A 2009 Pew study on economic mobility found links between racial and economic segregation that dictate the fate of whole generations of Black children. Over time, their individual prospects were directly tied to the advancement, or regression, of their communities:

• Four in five black children who started in the top three quintiles experienced downward mobility, compared with just two in five white children. Three in five white children who started in the bottom two quintiles experienced upward mobility, versus just one in four black children. • If black and white children had grown up in neighborhoods with similar poverty rates (i.e., if whites had grown up where blacks did or blacks had grown up where whites did), the gap in downward mobility between them would be smaller by one-fourth to one-third. • Neighborhood poverty alone accounts for a greater portion of the black-white downward mobility gap than the effects of parental education, occupation, labor force participation, and a range of other family characteristics combined.

But the OECD study parses the impact of social policy in shaping, or reversing, some of the legacy of inequality. Mobility can be promoted through investing quality schools and early childhood education, encouraging socioeconomic integration, progressive welfare policies that even out wealth inequality, and financial aid to broaden higher education opportunities for students of disadvantaged backgrounds. But redistribution of material resources can only go so far in a society where opportunity often hangs on the color line–as race can’t be erased through education or tax policy. And in a democratic society, racial identity and community ties should be allowed to continue across generations, even as poverty and hardship are overcome. The American myth of opportunity isn’t necessarily obsolete, but in the face of systemic discrimination, pursuing the Dream means waking up from delusions of colorblindness. Image: Civil Rights Movement Veterans