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.
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.
– Mr. 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 support for this article and the one following. NR is grateful for its generosity.