There’s No Simple Solution for Economic Mobility

To move up the income ladder, people need to take lots of baby steps, why is why solitary, sweeping policy solutions can’t solve this problem.

Graduating students applaud as US President Barack Obama speaks during commencement ceremonies at Barnard College May 14, 2012 in New York City.
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
Jan. 17, 2014, midnight

The more re­search­ers learn about what it takes to build an ef­fect­ive lad­der of op­por­tun­ity, the more the an­swer looks like, well, a lad­der.

In oth­er words, re­search tells us that no single cross­roads de­term­ines wheth­er young people born in mod­est cir­cum­stances can ad­vance to a bet­ter life than their par­ents. To achieve up­ward mo­bil­ity, youths must cross a suc­ces­sion of hurdles, with each test they pass pla­cing them on stronger foot­ing to mas­ter the next. The pro­cess is se­quen­tial and cu­mu­lat­ive — like climb­ing a lad­der.

In a wel­come shift, more polit­ic­al lead­ers in both parties are fo­cus­ing on the miss­ing rungs in Amer­ica’s lad­ders to op­por­tun­ity. Pres­id­ent Obama on Thursday con­vened at the White House nearly 100 col­lege pres­id­ents who pledged to ex­pand high­er-edu­ca­tion op­por­tun­it­ies for minor­ity and low-in­come stu­dents. Earli­er this month, Sen. Marco Ru­bio, R-Fla., in­sisted: “The erosion of equal op­por­tun­ity is among the greatest threats to our ex­cep­tion­al­ism as a na­tion.”

This con­cern is well-placed. Des­pite Amer­ica’s self-im­age as a so­ci­ety that al­lows all to ad­vance as far as their tal­ents will take them, our eco­nomy and edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem in­creas­ingly ap­por­tion suc­cess to chil­dren with the foresight to be born in­to af­flu­ence. As the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion’s Richard Reeves and Kerry Searle Gran­nis noted in a per­cept­ive pa­per this week, a child raised in the bot­tom fifth of the in­come dis­tri­bu­tion now is al­most six times as likely to re­main there as to reach the top fifth.

The big in­sight from Reeves and Gran­nis is that re­vers­ing these trends re­quires more than “a one-shot policy.” Their sum­mary of the re­search finds that kids from low-in­come fam­il­ies are much less likely than those with more-af­flu­ent par­ents to re­ceive ef­fect­ive par­ent­ing in early child­hood; to start school ready to learn; to be equipped for post­sec­ond­ary edu­ca­tion; and to get a strong start in the labor mar­ket or when form­ing a fam­ily. Clos­ing these gaps re­quires smart, sus­tained en­gage­ment, be­cause evid­ence shows that the pos­it­ive ef­fects of even the best in­ter­ven­tions at one level (such as good Head Start pro­grams) “wear off over time un­less there are ad­di­tion­al, re­in­for­cing in­ter­ven­tions at the next life stage.”

That means there’s no sil­ver bul­let to close the op­por­tun­ity gap. Even ex­pan­ded early-child­hood edu­ca­tion — where most ex­perts would place the most chips — can’t guar­an­tee later suc­cess. But this ana­lys­is also means that pub­lic and private policy can move the needle at many stages of life.

Obama’s White House con­fer­ence fo­cused on one crit­ic­al point: the trans­ition from high school to col­lege. Amer­ic­an high­er edu­ca­tion now does more to re­in­force than dis­solve in­her­ited priv­ilege. A new U.S. Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment study track­ing high school sopho­mores from 2002 found that chil­dren with par­ents in the top fourth of the in­come dis­tri­bu­tion were four times as likely to have ob­tained a four-year col­lege de­gree by 2012 as those from fam­il­ies on the bot­tom fourth. About three-fifths of chil­dren of par­ents with post­gradu­ate de­grees had their own four-year de­grees, com­pared with just one-sixth of kids of par­ents with only a high school dip­loma.

At the White House, Obama pressed col­lege pres­id­ents, non­profit lead­ers, and found­a­tion heads for com­mit­ments in four areas meant to close those gaps: ex­pand­ing pro­grams that guide at-risk kids as young as middle school to­ward col­lege; provid­ing col­lege guid­ance to more low-in­come high schools; and re­think­ing post­sec­ond­ary re­medi­al in­struc­tion.

Most im­port­ant, the uni­versit­ies (which in­cluded some of the na­tion’s top schools) prom­ised great­er ef­fort to re­cruit and gradu­ate high-achiev­ing, low-in­come kids who meet their aca­dem­ic re­quire­ments but don’t real­ize it, and thus ap­ply to less se­lect­ive schools with few­er re­sources. That pledge builds on the pi­on­eer­ing work of Stan­ford Uni­versity eco­nom­ist Car­oline Hoxby — now vastly ex­pan­ded by the Col­lege Board — who found that simply send­ing low-in­come kids in­form­a­tion on which top schools they are qual­i­fied to at­tend per­suades many to raise their sights. Gene Sper­ling, dir­ect­or of the White House Na­tion­al Eco­nom­ic Coun­cil, says more uni­versity com­mit­ments will fol­low. “This is a launch — not an end,” he says. “This is the start of a mo­bil­iz­a­tion to bring about more ac­tion [and] more par­ti­cipants.”

The White House con­fer­ence shined a use­ful spot­light, but many forces must be re­versed for high­er edu­ca­tion to truly ex­pand op­por­tun­ity: rising costs; the shift in pub­lic uni­versity fund­ing from tax­pay­ers to par­ents; re­stric­tions on af­firm­at­ive ac­tion; and the trend of col­leges re­dir­ect­ing their schol­ar­ship dol­lars from needy fam­il­ies to­ward aca­dem­ic stars in­ten­ded to raise their na­tion­al rank­ings. And even all these factors are just one com­pon­ent of the lar­ger chal­lenge of re­in­vig­or­at­ing up­ward mo­bil­ity.

The good news is that restor­ing mo­bil­ity pays off with the so­cial equi­val­ent of com­pound in­terest. Each time so­ci­ety helps a child suc­ceed it im­proves the odds that their chil­dren will re­ceive the ef­fect­ive par­ent­ing that po­s­i­tions them for their own suc­cess. “If you break the neg­at­ive cycle de­cis­ively enough, there is a very good chance it will stay broken, which means you feel the ef­fect for gen­er­a­tions,” says Reeves. Amid all the daunt­ing trends in mo­bil­ity, that re­ward is a power­ful reas­on for op­tim­ism — and re­newed com­mit­ment to help­ing more chil­dren climb high­er than their par­ents.

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