February 17, 2023 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

We must improve conditions, not just equalize opportunities

Jack Metzgar on that thing we call upward mobility.

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Editor’s note: Jack’s piece originally appeared in Working Class Perspectives.

I’m old enough now to have grandnieces and nephews, and almost all of them have lower living standards and worse working conditions than their parents. And their parents had it worse than their grandparents. The one exception is Carrie, who recently graduated from college and works as a medical technologist, making one of the best salaries in three generations of our extended family. She grew up in poverty, the child of a teenage mother who was a ward and prisoner of the welfare system for the first decade of her motherhood. Carrie and her mother worked hard to climb out of poverty, and Carrie’s success is heartening in a family that has seen so little of it.

My extended family reflects patterns of upward mobility in the US today. Only a handful of people born in the bottom half of the income hierarchy move up, but they are often seen as evidence of the continuing promise of the American Dream. Most people born since 1980, however, are living diminished lives compared to their parents.

This situation shows why absolute upward mobility is more important than relative upward mobility. Understanding the difference makes clear why we should focus on the conditions of people’s lives, not just their opportunities to move up a social class ladder.

Equal opportunity is a worthy primary goal for groups that have and continue to face discrimination and exclusion – Blacks, women, and many others. But it is NOT the right goal for addressing income and wealth inequality, which is not about having an opportunity to have a decent life, but about having that kind of life if you simply work hard and play by the rules. 

Relative upward mobility is when people born into a lower income quintile rise to a higher quintile. It has stayed roughly the same for more than 50 years. Most people born into the top two quintiles at any point since 1970 have stayed there as adults, while fewer than 1 of 10 born into the bottom quintile, like Carrie, make it to the top 20%. This means we’re getting no closer to equal opportunity than we were a half century ago.

Absolute upward mobility measures whether people earn more than their parents did. And it has been declining for more than 50 years. Over 90% of children born in the 1940s, for example, earned more as adults than their parents did, regardless of whether they moved up any quintiles. As real wages and family incomes increased across the board, almost everybody lived better than their parents. But only about half of those born in 1980 have family incomes greater than their parents, and it’s even worse for those born since then. 

Carrie illustrates both kinds of upward mobility, but it is what her income provides, not the quintile it puts her in, that matters the most, for her and for our society. Absolute mobility measures changes for the population at large, not just where individuals land relative to where they begin. Rather than referencing heartening individual stories of struggle and success, absolute mobility is a dry statistic that tries to capture the macro-level whole. Is a rising tide lifting or sinking most boats? As the graph below shows, most of us have been sinking for quite a while, and there is nothing heartening about that.

We know all this because of heroic research conducted by Raj Chetty and his colleagues. Chetty runs Opportunity Insights at Harvard University, a research center that “uses big data to study the science of economic opportunity: how we can give children from all backgrounds better chances of succeeding?” After decades of researching both relative and absolute mobility, Chetty has recently published two highly influential studies that collapse the distinction, but end up focusing exclusively on the micro level where individual success might be achieved rather than on the macro where broad conditions affect almost everybody. This is a mistake. Instead of encouraging us to look for ways to improve conditions from the bottom up and across the board, it emphasizes the narrower goal of equal opportunity.

Increasing opportunity sounds great. It aims to help more people move up into that top 20% or 40%, but there are two problems with that. First, because relative mobility is a fixed hierarchical system, moving some people up doesn’t increase the size of the higher categories. When one person moves up, someone else has to move down. Conditions do not change, only who occupies which places in the income hierarchy does. More importantly, focusing only on improving opportunities for relative upward mobility doesn’t address stagnant incomes, much less the declining incomes that the lower quintiles in the US face today. The gap between the lower and higher income quintiles may well increase, so that most people’s lives get a little or a lot more difficult year by year even as a few make it into higher income quintiles.

It isn’t just that Chetty’s analysis focuses on only one kind of mobility. He also proposes “solutions” to income inequality that don’t address the real challenges facing most Americans. He calls for local changes that would expose more poor and working-class people to affluent middle-class professionals, from whose social capital they might benefit. Chetty would increase “economic connectedness” and reduce “friending bias” by eliminating tracking at a high school in California, redoing the architecture of a high school in Texas, and purposely mixing social classes at a Boston weightlifting gym.

Meanwhile, the wealthiest 1% among us keep piling up mostly passive income such that in 2021 their total wealth was more than double all personal income earned by all US individuals. Instead of debating what kind of wealth tax might buy which policies to improve the conditions of almost everybody, Chetty would have us focus on feel-good local efforts to increase interactions between people of different social classes.

The big-data research Chetty and his colleagues have done is extraordinarily rich in local detail, mapping economic connectedness and friending bias at specific zip code, high school, and college levels. It is designed to help people take immediate local action to improve individuals’ prospects for upward mobility. But Chetty is an especially influential voice in discussions of income and wealth inequality, and his decisive shift to an equal opportunity framework (embodied in the name of his institute) threatens to erase attention to the historical trajectory of actual conditions – a discussion that he once helped initiate.

Equal opportunity is a worthy primary goal for groups that have and continue to face discrimination and exclusion – Blacks, women, and many others. But it is NOT the right goal for addressing income and wealth inequality, which is not about having an opportunity to have a decent life, but about having that kind of life if you simply work hard and play by the rules. When life is getting worse from generation to generation for more than half the population, we need to focus on actual conditions, not opportunities. That means big national policies that enhance the common good and substantially improve most people’s lives, not local efforts to “better [individual] chances of succeeding.” What’s more, we are very unlikely to improve our opportunity structure until we make actual conditions of life more equal, beginning with income.

We are a very rich country with most of our wealth piled up at the very top. To achieve upward mobility for most of us, not just a few of us, we’re going to have to move some money around – to take relatively small amounts from the tax-advantaged rich and redistribute what will be large amounts of money to the rest of us, starting with those bottom quintiles.

Jack Metzgar is a professor emeritus of Humanities at Roosevelt University. His recent book is Bridging the Divide: Working-Class Culture in a Middle-Class Society.

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