Scrutinizing Mobility

The Pew Charitable Trust’s Economic Mobility Project continues to release comprehensive reports in its series on the “status of the American Dream”. Today, they have released 11 topical literature reviews on such topics as education, immigration, and tax and spending policies.

These are excellent resources for teaching, for becoming more politically informed, for moving far beyond the simple rhetoric of America as the land of opportunity.

Supporting Mobility Near the Top

The Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trust released it’s latest report last week, this one focussed on the dispersement of federal spending for programs designed to support economic mobility. They write:

Education, work experience and saving enhance the opportunity for upward economic mobility. To this end, many federal investments aim to enhance economic mobility. But exactly how much does the federal government encourage economic mobility? What form does the encouragement take? And who benefits from these efforts?

Alas, they conclude, 2/3 of federal spending to support mobility goes to middle and high income households, while many federal programs targeting low income families sometimes actively discourage mobility.

Looking at ten categories of supports, from home ownership to child well-being programs, the report concludes the beneficiaries of these federal programs are those in the upper two income quintiles, “people who already possess substantial command of financial and human capital”.

This non-partisan project is publishing an excellent series of reports of economic mobility in the U.S., and as in this most recently released report, the news is generally not good.

Blogging Pew’s Economic Mobility Report

Last week, the Pew Charitable Trust released a series of three reports on economic mobility across generations, in hopes of providing “information and tools that will provide the nation’s leaders with an objective and accurate picture of the status and health of the American Dream.

You can find all three reports here, or download a two page “fact sheet” here.

While the release of the reports was covered widely in the news, I’m finding little in the blogosphere about the reports’ overall findings that depending on one’s starting points, income mobility may be more limited than many Americans believe.

An exception is the Wall Street Journal’s Wealth Report, where Robert Frank contrasts the finding of the reports that family background still strongly influences where one winds up on the economic ladder with recent reports supporting the belief that in the U.S.,
“wealth is [now] ruled by the entrepreneur and the middle-class guy made good”.

And over at Writing in the Wild, Ray Watkins provides a good summary of the reports and insight into the possible “glass half-full/half empty” interpretations of their findings.

In contrast, No Oil for Pacifists seems to have given the Pew Reports a very quick read, indeed. Ignoring the high rates of downward mobility of African American children from middle-income families, he proclaims that

“the economic prospects for African-Americans has improved dramatically since the mid 1970s; I suspect the gains over the past decade are closer to those of whites”.

Similarly, he proclaims that unlike Europe, “nearly everyone in America has the chance to be rich”, when the Pew Reports repeat the findings that are widely cited elsewhere: that America is a less mobile society than other developed nations. He’s missed, also, one of the report’s central findings: that much of the growth in family income in the past generation is attributable to more women going to work, not to the ease by which ambitious people simply work their way into wealth.

The Washington Post’s Michael Fletcher’s on-line Q and A focused on diverse explanations for the fall of so many African Americans from middle income status, while Get Religion, going far beyond the data used in these reports, insists that these long-term economic trends can be explained by individual choices (decline in involvement in religion, single parenthood) made by African Americans.

Insisting, instead, that the data in the reports are evidence of ongoing racism, Jack and Jill Politics blog takes exception to NPR’s Juan Williams’ essay on the divergence of black culture and values along class lines.

It will be interesting to follow Pew’s ongoing work on this project of careful scrutiny of the American Dream — and to follow, also, the public discourse that their work generates.