Many of us have been taught that education is a sure gateway to the American Dream. A recent study titled “The Equality of Opportunity Project” by Harvard University professors Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, and University of California Berkeley professors Patrick Kline and Emmanuel Saez suggests that might be true for some but not for those at the lowest end of the socio economic ladder. Those who frequently struggle to make ends meet are not likely to pull themselves out of poverty. The study’s authors found millions of our neighbors are locked into the condition of poverty from birth. Socio-economic mobility is out of reach. For far too many Americans socio-economic growth is stunted. No doubt we know exceptions and some are well documented. The study makes clear these are exceptions and not the rule. There is a lot of political talk and perhaps needed conversation about public policy to support middle class families however we cannot forget about those whose chances for success are severely limited by their socio-economic DNA.
The researchers who conducted this study admit that more research is necessary to explain why there is such a wide geographic variation between where you are born and your likely chances of economic success. Hendren said, “He thinks much more research should be done to explain why someone born into a poor Pittsburgh family has a greater chance of succeeding than someone born into a poor family elsewhere, such as in Atlanta. The study found that the southeastern United States contained many of the regions with the least social mobility.”
Just 26 years ago, the country’s top economists debated the merits of social mobility and some concluded that the problem was solved. Michigan State Professor Solon said, “People would say, ‘Don’t worry about inequality. The offspring of the poor have chances as good as the chances of the offspring of the rich.’ Well, that’s not true. It’s not respectable in scholarly circles anymore to make that argument.”
Another study noted that the gap in test scores between the children of America’s richest 10% and its poorest has risen by 30-40% over the past 25 years. However, the income of the top 1 percent nearly quadrupled from 1979 to 2007 and almost no change in the typical family’s income.
The study confirms social mobility is a goal in the US but it is not likely for the poorest Americans. Before we blame those who are the poorest amongst us, we should take a look at the social, educational and political policies that continue to stunt their climb out of poverty.