Where to look to encourage more upward relative mobility? Begin with the fact that just 16 percent of those who start at the bottom but graduate from college remain stuck at the bottom, compared with 45 percent of those who fail to get a college degree. There is a legitimate debate about whether pushing academically marginal students into college will give them the same benefits that current college graduates receive, but there are surely financially constrained students who would enroll — or who would stay enrolled — if they could afford to.
EMP research has also shown that children with divorced parents are less likely to escape the bottom than other children. Just as it is not incontestably established that sending more disadvantaged kids to college would increase upward relative mobility, it is also debatable whether reducing divorce would do so. But reducing the number of unplanned pregnancies would unquestionably reduce the number of children experiencing divorce and other disadvantages. Since it is more common among parents in the bottom than elsewhere, reducing unplanned pregnancy would lower the number of children starting out at the bottom and thereby reduce the number of children stuck there down the road. And it would improve the mobility prospects of many of the adults avoiding pregnancy.
Finally, remaining in the bottom is much more common among black families than white families. While much remains to be learned about why this is so, another EMP report starkly shows that black and white children grow up in entirely different economic worlds. Simply put, two-thirds of black children experience a level of neighborhood poverty growing up that just 6 percent of white children will ever see. That is a national tragedy. It’s certainly hard to see how the kids are to blame.
Broad-based economic growth, international competitiveness, and the ideals composing the American Dream all require that policymakers heed Governor Daniels’s call. Increasing upward absolute mobility — for all, but with a particular focus on those who start out at the bottom — should be the primary goal of policymakers. The first political party that commits itself to putting upward mobility first and that credibly takes on the challenge will be ascendant.
— Scott Winship is a fellow at the Brookings Institution and was formerly the research manager of the Pew Economic Mobility Project. The Hertog/Simon Fund for Policy Analysis provided funding for this article, which originally appeared in the November 14, 2011 issue of National Review.