Good, long article in the Santa Fe Reporter on economist Samuel Bowles’s 42 years of research on economic inequality.
Again with the numbers:
The first number is the likelihood, expressed as a percentage, that a child born to parents whose incomes fall within the top 10 percent of Americans will grow up to be at least as wealthy.
The second is the percentage likelihood that a person born into the bottom 10 percent of society will stay at the bottom.
Just to drive the point home, here’s a third number: 1.3
That’s the percentage likelihood that a bottom 10 percenter will ever make it to the top 10 percent. For 99 out of 100 people, rags never lead to riches.
These estimates come from research by one of Bowles’ former students, American University economist Tom Hertz, published in Unequal Chances, a 2004 book co-edited by Bowles. To arrive at these figures, Hertz mined the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a survey of 4,800 American families that’s been updated each year since it began in 1968, the year Martin Luther King inspired Bowles to study inequality.
It may not come as a shock that rich kids who grow up learning to sail eventually buy yachts, while the offspring of burger-flippers might hope to rise to be the night managers for whole crews of burger-flippers. What’s troubling about this research is that poverty tends to persist through generations, no matter how individuals try to improve their circumstances.
So, much of what Americans tell their children is wrong. It doesn’t really matter how long you go to school or even necessarily how hard you work. The single most important factor to success in America is “one’s choice of parents,” as a contributor to Unequal Chances wryly put it.
Bowles’s solution: give every person in America $250,000 when they turn 18.
Interesting stuff. Even pro-welfare state pundits are sometime swayed by the myth of American upward mobility. Take this pro-Netherlands article from the New York Times:
Another corollary of collectivist thinking is a cultural tendency not to stand out or excel. “Just be normal” is a national saying, and in an earlier era children were taught, in effect, that “if you were born a dime, you’ll never be a quarter” — the very antithesis of the American ideal of upward mobility. There seem to be fewer risk-takers here. Those who do go out on a limb or otherwise follow their own internal music — the architect Rem Koolhaas, say, or Vincent Van Gogh — tend to leave.
But is this accurate? As stated above, most Americans are never able to actually pull themselves up by their bootstraps. And according to this study the Netherlands actually lead in economic mobility amongst several developed nations, at least as of 1999:
The lack of outliers who become hugely successful has obscured the greater truth: the Dutch are far more successful than Americans.