So what is the bottom line? The cross-national evidence on relative mobility is tricky to interpret. The cross-national evidence on absolute mobility is nonexistent. The evidence on educational and occupational mobility across countries is enormously complicated. Discerning trends in mobility within the United States is far from easy.
What is clear is that in at least one regard American mobility is exceptional: not in terms of downward mobility from the middle or from the top, and not in terms of upward mobility from the middle — rather, where we stand out is in our limited upward mobility from the bottom. And in particular, it’s American men who fare worse than their counterparts in other countries. One study compared the United States with Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the United Kingdom. It found that in each country, whether looking at sons or at daughters, 23 to 30 percent of children whose fathers were in the bottom fifth of earnings remained in the bottom fifth themselves as adults — except in the United States, where 42 percent of sons remained there
Cross-national surveys show that Americans are more likely to believe they live in a meritocracy than are residents of other Western nations. When told in an EMP poll that Sweden and Canada have more mobility than the United States, just four in ten said it was a major problem. One explanation for this finding is that high living standards and levels of absolute mobility make relative mobility of secondary concern for Americans. Indeed, EMP polling indicates that an overwhelming 82 percent prioritize financial stability — keeping what they have — over “moving up the income ladder.” In that case, tending to the American Dream demands that policymakers work to promote absolute upward mobility.
But Americans across the ideological spectrum are unhappy with the lack of relative upward mobility out of the bottom. When given the actual percentage of people stuck in the bottom, 53 percent of Americans, and half of conservatives, deemed it a “major problem.” Living up to our values therefore requires policymakers also to focus on increasing upward relative mobility from the bottom.
The most direct way to increase upward absolute mobility is with policies that promote strong economic growth, which in turn requires a focus on economic efficiency. But here relative mobility comes back in — because low relative mobility is inefficient. The mass of people stuck at the bottom is likely to represent an incredibly costly misallocation of human resources. Of course, one-fifth of the population has to be in the bottom fifth, but that quintile does not have to be filled so disproportionately with the children of disadvantaged parents. Many people in the bottom fifth are likely to have made the same bad choices as their parents before them. Different people will hold them more or less accountable for their shortcomings, and that is a major fault line of American politics.
But many people in the bottom fifth have presumably “worked hard and played by the rules.” Reducing economic and other barriers in ways that do not encourage gaming of the system should, then, help some subset of Americans rise out of the bottom, increase their productivity, and thereby promote economic growth that will help everyone else too.
Increasing upward relative mobility from the bottom is also likely to foster growth-enhancing competition. The diminished threat of downward mobility among those born to advantage threatens to sow the seeds of complacency. Among children with parents in the top fifth, 40 percent will remain there themselves, and nearly two-thirds of them will remain in the top two fifths. Again, the point is not that none or few of them deserve to be there. But practices such as legacy admissions to Ivy League schools clearly allow some advantaged children to coast in ways that sap economic growth.