Yesterday’s New York Times had an excellent writeup of the ongoing discussion of inequality and economic mobility:
But many researchers have reached a conclusion that turns conventional wisdom on its head: Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe. The mobility gap has been widely discussed in academic circles, but a sour season of mass unemployment and street protests has moved the discussion toward center stage.
I’ve written about the subject several times myself, but Jason DeParle does a great job covering most of the bases:
The causes of America’s mobility problem are a topic of dispute — starting with the debates over poverty. The United States maintains a thinner safety net than other rich countries, leaving more children vulnerable to debilitating hardships.
Poor Americans are also more likely than foreign peers to grow up with single mothers. That places them at an elevated risk of experiencing poverty and related problems, a point frequently made by Mr. Santorum, who surged into contention in the Iowa caucuses. The United States also has uniquely high incarceration rates, and a longer history of racial stratification than its peers.
Truthfully, though, I think the impact of incarceration rates deserves greater scrutiny than it’s receiving now – a point where I think liberal punditry fails and conservative focus succeeds.
That being said, the article also pays service to the right’s incessant need to disavow the importance of relative mobility:
Skeptics caution that the studies measure “relative mobility” — how likely children are to move from their parents’ place in the income distribution. That is different from asking whether they have more money. Most Americans have higher incomes than their parents because the country has grown richer.
Some conservatives say this measure, called absolute mobility, is a better gauge of opportunity. A Pew study found that 81 percent of Americans have higher incomes than their parents (after accounting for family size). There is no comparable data on other countries.
This strikes me as a unique instance of conservative cognitive dissonance – income inequality and stagnant upward economic mobility for the poor is OK because everyone has more real money than their parents – given their simultaneous dire predictions of runaway inflation (you know, that thing that makes the same amount of money you had 20 years ago worth less in purchasing power today).
So yes, talking about the different types of inequality (relative and absolute) and economic mobility (up or down) in the United States means covering a wide array of subjects, sub-subjects and so on that can get very complex very quickly. In that way this is similar to the subject of health care, which makes it very easy to take things out of context to create talking points that are largely besides the point (emphasis in bold by Greg Sargent, via Rick Santorum):
No, we have to have something for everybody! We can’t have people having access to better health insurance than other people. No! No, it all has to be the same! Is that American? Equality of result? Is that what built the greatest country in the history of the world? No. That’s what’s destroying most of the countries in the world.
If you do not know the difference between equality of result and equality of access, then you don’t need to be talking about health care in this country. Similarly, if you continue to confuse the difference between equality of outcome and equality of opportunity then you don’t need to be talking about inequality and economic mobility in this country either.
*See Also – This graph on mobility from the New York Times: