A team of researches lead by Harvard economist Raj Chetty have just released two paradigm shifting studies on social mobility. One study found that, contrary to anxious worries haunting the inequality debate, social mobility hasn’t changed at all in the last 50 years. But there’s a catch: just because our mobility hasn’t declined, doesn’t mean it is high. For the last fifty years social mobility in the land of the American dream has been consistently lower than in other countries. The second study finds that those pockets of communities in America that do foster mobility are characterized by five attributes: less segregation, less income inequality, better schools, more social capital, and stable two-parent families.These studies have set the pundit tongues a-wagging. One of the best reactions to the second study came from W. Bradford Wilcox in Slate. After working though each of the five attributes, Wilcox writes:
Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama has stressed his commitment to data-driven decision-making, not ideology. Similarly, progressives like Krugman have stressed their scientific bona fides, as against the “anti-science” right. If progressives like the president and the Nobel laureate are serious about reviving the fortunes of the American Dream in the 21st century in light of the data, this new study suggests they will need to take pages from both left and right playbooks on matters ranging from zoning to education reform. More fundamentally, these new data indicate that any effort to revive opportunity in America must run through two arenas where government has only limited power—civil society and the American family.
Inequality and social mobility are vexed and complicated issues, but one thing that comes out from these studies is the conceptual distinction between two kinds of poverty. Poverty A is material poverty, and is the kind the left is most worried about when it talks about income inequality. People who suffer from Poverty A may not be able to pay the grocery bill, the rent, or get school clothes for the kids. Poverty B is social poverty, of the kind Wilcox highlights: broken families, poor education, and disappearing social capital. The right tends to talk more about this kind of poverty, and sees Poverty B as the cause of Poverty A. The left is more likely to believe that Poverty B is the consequence and Poverty A the cause; when people struggle to feed themselves and keep a roof over their heads, it is harder to form stable families and strong communities.In the real world, poverty is complicated. There are some cases where it is simple; many Cuban American refugees, for example, fled the island with nothing, and were desperately poor on arrival, but over time many rebuilt their lives and became even better off than they were at home. These people were temporarily afflicted by Poverty A, but because they were well-to-do in terms of social capital, they were able to change their circumstances.Clearly, the hardest kind of poverty to help is the kind that involves both types of poverty. Someone who reaches the age of 18 having bounced from one foster home to another, has attended only failing skills and who reaches adulthood with no parents, no skills, and perhaps a history of drug abuse and petty trouble is profoundly disadvantaged. Such people need the kind of care and community that government cannot easily provide and even then the future will likely be hard. The child of an unmarried and uneducated woman without strong family and community ties is going to face an uphill road, especially if, as is likely, this child grows up in a neighborhood with bad schools and where many other children come from similar backgrounds.It’s easy to become too pessimistic about poverty. When it comes to material things, the lot of the poor has steadily improved over the last fifty years. Technological progress may not narrow the gap between rich and poor, but in a country like the United States it does raise the floor. In material terms at least, poor people today are often better off than even the rich were in the 18th century. Their kids don’t die of preventable and treatable diseases, they have better heating in winter and cooling in summer than George Washington ever knew, and they have cell phones and color TV. Walk into a dentist office today with Medicare and you will get incomparably better treatment than anything King Louis XIV could have commanded in the Palace of Versailles. A particular individual may not be improving her position in society in relative terms, but it is a lot better to be in the bottom quintile of 2014 America than to be in the bottom quintile back in 1950 or 1910.We desperately need a smart national conversation about poverty, inequality, and mobility; much of this is going to involve demolishing simplistic shibboleths on both sides of the political divide. And finally there’s something else to consider: in the American context it is impossible to talk about poverty and inequality without also talking about race. That’s always a hard conversation for this society; it involves painful and thorny questions that historically have divided us. The Democrats hope that the issue of inequality will work for them in what looks to be a difficult 2014 electoral season; let’s hope that at least some of the time the conversation goes beyond posturing and name-calling.