What’s the most important issue in American politics? In a narrow sense, the sputtering economy and ballooning deficits are likely to dominate the 2012 election season. But while every election has its own particular concerns, fundamentally it is to the American Dream that our politicians must tend — that libertarian and egalitarian bundle of values and hopes that transcend our partisan, economic, and social divisions.
When the Pew Economic Mobility Project (EMP) surveyed people about what the American Dream meant, it got widely ranging answers. Indiana’s governor, Mitch Daniels, recently hit on a common sentiment when he observed that “upward mobility from the bottom is the crux of the American promise.” But even those who would focus more broadly on the rising tide that lifts all boats should be concerned about the state of economic mobility in America. The economic inefficiency that results when much of the population is stuck at the bottom (and the top) means the tide may lift everyone less than it could.
One way to assess the extent of mobility is to ask whether people tend to be better off than their parents were at the same age — whether they experience upward absolute mobility. Research for EMP conducted by my colleagues at the Brookings Institution Julia Isaacs, Isabel Sawhill, and Ron Haskins shows that two-thirds of 40-year-old Americans are in households with larger incomes than their parents had at the same age, even taking into account the fact that the cost of living has risen. That’s pretty impressive, but it actually understates the improvement between generations. Household size declined over these decades, so incomes now are divided up among fewer family members, leaving them better off than bigger households of the past. Another EMP study shows that when incomes are adjusted for household size, four out of five adults today are better off than their parents were at the same age.
The finding of pervasive upward absolute mobility flies in the face of liberal accounts of a stagnant middle class. These accounts generally conflate disappointing growth in men’s earnings with growth in household income, which has been impressive. Growth in women’s earnings has also been impressive, but economic pessimists have twisted these bright spots to fit a gloomy narrative. They claim that household incomes have kept pace only because wives have been forced into work to make up for the shrinking bacon their husbands bring home. That ignores the long-term trend of women’s obtaining more education in industrialized nations around the world, presumably with an intention to put it to use in the work force someday. It also ignores the evidence that married men rationally chose to reduce their work hours as their wives increased theirs (even as single men continued working the same hours), and the fact that employment grew more among the wives of better-educated men than among the wives of less-educated men.
Nevertheless, incomes have not grown as fast in recent decades as they did in the middle of the 20th century. While the vast majority of Americans end up better off than their parents, the difference is probably not as great as the improvement of their parents over their grandparents was.
There’s another way to look at intergenerational mobility — asking whether those whose parents were at the bottom or at the top relative to Americans as a whole end up in the same place in adulthood. This is the question of relative mobility. You may have a higher income than your parents did, but if that is generally true of your generation, then your rank may be no different than your parents’ rank was. It may even be lower. And having less than others can figure more prominently in our assessment of our well-being than does merely having more than our parents did — as may be the case with scarce commodities, such as homes in the best school districts or slots at the best universities.