Guest Post by J.D. Vance: Endangered Opportunity

by Reihan Salam

J.D. Vance, a National Review contributor currently working on a book about the social mobility of the white working class, offers thoughts on the new findings of the Equality of Opportunity Project.

Economists Raj Chetty and Emmanuel Saez have again blown the top off of the national conversation about income inequality and upward mobility.  Using data from their excellent study on equality of opportunity, Chetty and Saez found that relative mobility–the odds that a child born poor will become rich–basically hasn’t changed since the 1970s.  A poor child in America had an 8 percent chance of rising to the top in the 1980s, roughly the same chance as children born a decade earlier.  These findings upset the dominant narrative about upward mobility in America–specifically, that upward mobility is rapidly disappearing.

There’s a risk here of exaggerating the authors’ conclusions.  They didn’t find that opportunity for the poor is stable and robust, but that it’s stable and endangered.  For those who care about the American Dream, there’s much work to do.  There just isn’t more work to do now than there was a few decades ago.  That’s hardly consolation.
 
Still, if it doesn’t change the fact that upward mobility is something we need more of, it should change the conversation about why we don’t have it.  The story of many on the left is that America was humming along nicely until Reagan rigged the system for the rich.  Carter’s loss ended the hopes of the working class.  It was a convenient story, but now we know it’s basically false.
 
The more accurate picture, one that comes from the work of Joseph Ferrie, and Chul-In Lee and Gary Solon, is that America really was the land of opportunity until the 1930s (except, of course, for many minorities), that upward mobility leveled off a bit (but was still significantly higher) during the 1940s and 1950s, and that from the 1960s onwards, it has remained unacceptably low.  The American Dream didn’t die during Reagan’s administration–it died during Kennedy’s.  
 
Now, it’s tempting to say, “See! The big government policies of Kennedy and Johnson killed upward mobility.”  That’s a half-truth, at best.  If Kennedy and Johnson caused the problem, we’d expect to see a slight reversal during the 1980s and 1990s, when Reagan deregulated large sectors of the economy and Gingrich and Clinton reformed the welfare system.  Many of the policies that conservatives and liberals pushed haven’t done much of anything.  Spending more cash on the poor is a band-aid, as is withdrawing that support in the hopes of kickstarting the working class’s entrepreneurial spirit.  
 
The natural question becomes: is there anything we can do?  The past four decades of public policy on this issue is a story of very smart people fumbling in the dark, trying to fix a problem they don’t really understand.  When people talk about increasing the minimum wage–which is, at best, a drop in the bucket–or spending more money on college–a place that’s as foreign to most poor people as Tibet–they sound a lot like the people whose efforts have failed for 40 years running.  It’s such a superficial way to approach the problem: wages are low, so raise them; college helps people, so create more students.  These efforts have failed in the past, and will fail in the future because the crisis runs much deeper.
 
That crisis starts with family.  Chetty’s data proves what common sense suggests: that a poor person rising largely depends on the stability of her family.  This raises difficult questions, especially for conservatives.  For many poor folks, the family isn’t the source of their strength, but their greatest liability.  It is the home that nurtures the most destructive tendencies–it’s where you learn that getting high on pills is a good solution for pain; where you can’t do your homework over the noise of explosive fighting; where you’re taught that successful conflict resolution is throwing dishes against a wall.  Most poor families aren’t like this, of course, but a higher share of them are, and that makes all the difference.
 
I won’t pretend to know how to fix this problem.  But what we learned today is that our past efforts have largely failed.  We’ve also learned that any future success lies in counteracting the worst effects of broken American families.