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America's Mobility Problem

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2012's dominant political issue will be jobs and income inequality.  Recent studies suggest that we add social mobility to the list: an American born into poverty is increasingly unlikely to be able to move up and out.


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In his classic essay, "The Lost Art of Democratic Narrative," Robert Reich examined four core American myths.  One concerned mobility: the "Triumphant Individual "who works hard, takes risks, believes in himself, and eventually gains wealth, fame, and honor."  "The story is epitomized in the life of Abe Lincoln, born in a log cabin, who believed that "the value of life is to improve one's condition.' The theme was captured in Horatio Alger's hundred or so novellas, whose heroes all rise promptly and predictably from rags to riches"  "The moral: With enough effort and courage, anyone can make it in the United States."

The Triumphant Individual myth feeds the notion of the US as a land of unbounded opportunity; a country where anyone, no matter how impoverished his or her initial surroundings, can carve out a decent life by hard work.  That promise motivated my great grandfather to come to Pennsylvania from Scotland.  The same belief caused his children to move to Southern California.  And that bright promise motivated me to work in the Silicon Valley.  My family believed that hard work would bring success.  But for millions of Americans that dream has evaporated.

A recent New York Times article reported, "Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe."  The explanation is the circumstances of your family of origin -- if you are born into poverty you tend to stay there whereas if you are born into affluence you tend to continue to live in affluence.  "About 62 percent of Americans (male and female) raised in the top fifth of incomes stay in the top two-fifths" Similarly, 65 percent born in the bottom fifth stay in the bottom two-fifths."

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While income inequality and lack of social mobility has long been intellectual fodder for the left, the "mobility deficit" has only recently come to the attention of the right.  Conservative stalwarts, such as Paul Ryan and Rick Santorum, have observed that mobility in the US is less than it is in Canada and Europe.  Conservatives don't link lack of mobility to economic inequality, but they recognize there is a problem.

It's not a big mystery why poor kids don't have a chance to move up and out.  Many of them are raised by single moms in struggling households and don't get attention, in general, let alone help with their homework or encouragement to achieve.  The perplexing question is why a nation that has long cherished the myth of the triumphant individual doesn't link this to the golden rule.  Before he became President, Barack Obama observed, "It's that fundamental belief -- I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper -- that makes this country work. It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. "E pluribus unum." Out of many, one."  Why don't more of us believe it is our mutual responsibility to ensure there is a level playing field where everyone has a decent chance of success?

The truth is we've become a nation of narcissists.  For many Americans -- particularly Republicans -- the core value is not "E pluribus unum" but rather, "What's in it for me?"  As a consequence, we've shredded the safety net.  Poor kids aren't as likely to get small class sizes, pre- and after-school care, food, healthcare, and decent housing.   And we pay our blue-collar workers less than they do in Canada and Europe. 

If the mobility deficit makes it onto the list of issues discussed in the Presidential debates it will be interesting to hear what Candidates Obama and Romney have to say.  Obama is an example of the Triumphant Individual: abandoned by his father, raised by his grandparents and a working mom, working his way into Harvard Law School, becoming head of the Law Review"  In contrast, Romney was raised in privilege -- his father, George, was an automobile executive who resigned his CEO position to run for governor of Michigan.

Romney will likely pattern his response to the mobility deficit as he's dealt with global climate change: there's a problem; we don't know what causes it; here are a set of policy proposals that will benefit the 1 percent.  "Let's fight for the America we love." Romney will toe the conservative line; he will push for lower taxes for the one percent on the grounds that "a rising tide lifts all boats."

America's lack of social mobility is a national disgrace.  President Obama would do well to directly address it during the presidential campaign.  In 2008 he promised to bring hope but now many citizens are discouraged.  It's still possible to rebuild the American promise, to make the myth of the Triumphant Individual a reality for millions of impoverished Americans.  But some politician has to carry the torch.  Why not Barack Obama?

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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.

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