Toward the conclusion of Scott Walker’s well received speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit, the Wisconsin governor went for a feel-good, aspirational flourish about the American dream and American exceptionalism:
I want to end by telling you this: In America, it is one of the few places left in the world where it doesn’t matter what class you were born into. It doesn’t matter what your parents did for a living. In America, the opportunity is equal for each and every one of us. But in America, the ultimate outcome is up to each and every one of us individually.
Opportunity is equal? The data, unfortunately, do not seem to support Walker’s optimistic claim. First, there are other countries, such as Sweden and Canada, where the chances of escaping the bottom are just as good as in the United States. Second, American mobility rates have been stagnant over the past 40 years. Third, mobility rates vary greatly by race with 74 percent of white sons making it out of the bottom fifth versus 49 percent of African-American sons. Fourth, even the smartest kids have only a 1-in-4 chance of making it from the bottom fifth to the top fifth. At the same time, the worst-scoring wealthier kids have only a 1-in-4 chance of falling from the top fifth to the bottom fifth.
Slice and dice the data any which way and the same conclusion is unavoidable: Opportunity in America is neither optimal nor acceptable. Family structure matters. School quality matters. Where you live matters. Personal smarts and grit matters a lot, too, of course. But it sure helps if you’re from a stable family that lives in neighborhood with other stable families who all send their kids to high-performing schools. And for low-income families, it sure helps if there is a good public transit system so parents can easily get to where the jobs are. Identifying a helpful role for public policy doesn’t mean ignoring the role of personal responsibility. In fact, improving upward mobility should be one of the core goals for today’s Republican party.
Now there is one area of mobility where America really excels: You have a better chance of starting a business and becoming a billionaire than in any other large, advanced economy. And that is a fantastic thing that reflects the deep, entrepreneurial magic of our free-enterprise system. But upward mobility can’t just be about moving to the 0.001 percent. It needs to be creating an ecology of opportunity for all Americans to flourish and reach their human potential. In some ways government should do less, in other ways a bit more and better. Imagine a presidential debate where Hillary Clinton cites the above stats right after her Republican opponent suggests everyone has pretty much the same opportunity to make their American dream a reality if they only try really, really hard. It would be another “47 percent” moment for the GOP.