One tenet that separates the United States from other countries is our belief in upward mobility. A study of attitudes in 27 countries found that Americans, more than people elsewhere, tend to believe that intelligence, skill, and effort will be rewarded with success. This faith is vibrant even among groups to which opportunity has often been denied: A recent Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll found that African-Americans and Hispanics were more likely than whites to believe that children of all races had adequate chances to succeed in America.
But as Brookings Institution scholars Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill demonstrate in a compelling new book, America's record doesn't entirely justify this optimism. Haskins, a former Republican congressional aide, and Sawhill, a former Clinton administration budget official, are two of America's sharpest social-policy analysts. Their book, Creating an Opportunity Society, collects decades of pragmatic insights into the challenge of re-creating an economy that works for all.
In the generation after World War II, the median income roughly doubled, increasing faster for those on the lower rungs of the ladder than for those at the top. Since 1979, the median income has advanced much more slowly overall, and it has grown much faster for the affluent than for those below them. Today, Haskins and Sawhill note, family incomes are higher than in the 1970s almost entirely because women are working, and earning, more than they did then; men in their 30s today earn less than their fathers did at the same age.
In this environment, upward mobility becomes tougher. Analyzing long-term economic studies, the authors found that millions of Americans eventually outearn their parents, no matter where they start out. But the pair's calculations also show more continuity than our national myths imply.
More than 60 percent of Americans whose parents scaled the top fifth of the income ladder have reached the top two-fifths themselves, Haskins and Sawhill found. By contrast, 65 percent of Americans with parents from the lowest fifth of earners remain stuck in the bottom two-fifths. Though we venerate the American Dream, studies show that children born to low-income parents in the United States are more likely to remain trapped near the bottom than their counterparts in Europe, the authors report.
Many factors constrain upward mobility in America, including the decline of the two-parent family and bad personal decisions such as teen parenthood. But another reason the escalator is slowing for many on the bottom is that income is now so dependent on education. Today, four-year college graduates earn about 80 percent more than workers with high school degrees. That's more than double the gap in the 1960s.
Young people who begin with the most advantages are considerably more likely than the less well-off to add the advantage of advanced education. Sawhill and Haskins report that children of parents in the top fifth of income are now more than twice as likely to attend college, and nearly five times as likely to graduate, as are children of parents in the bottom fifth. Separate research from Thomas Mortenson of the nonpartisan Pell Institute shows that this income gap in college completion has widened substantially since the 1970s. Children whose parents obtained college degrees are now nearly five times more likely to complete college themselves than are children whose parents did not.
These are deeply unhealthy, even destabilizing, patterns. If advanced education is the key to economic success, it's dangerous to reserve it primarily for those who start out on top. Such ossification is a recipe for class and racial conflict -- particularly if the economy remains weak. "It's a completely unsettling trend," Haskins says.
He and Sawhill see several keys to expanding college access. Although affordability remains a challenge, they say that enough financial aid is available for needy students that money is not the principal obstacle. (Haskins believes that President Obama's proposals to expand federal grants and simplify aid forms will further strengthen the system.)
The two believe that less progress has been made in developing programs that effectively prepare lower-income students to apply to college or help them succeed once they arrive. Most important, too few public schools in poor neighborhoods academically equip students to handle college work.
There is no simple answer to these challenges. But the nation is inviting conflict if it apportions opportunity primarily to the children with the good sense to be born where it is already within reach.
This article appears in the October 17, 2009, edition of National Journal Magazine.