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May 15, 2005

Class and Politics

Stephen Darwall: May 15, 2005

Today's New York Times begins a three-week series of articles on "Class in America" that will lay out the results of recent research on the "greater role" that class plays "in American life."  Class is prominent also in David Brooks's column for today: "Meet the Poor Republicans."  The juxtaposition is especially interesting.

Brooks has consistently identified and insightfully analyzed recent Republican success in attracting lower-income voters.  Here he notes that George Bush "won the white working class by 23 percentage points" and asks "why so many lower-middle-class waitresses in Kansas and Hispanic warehouse workers in Texas now call themselves Republicans?"  His answer, supported by recent Pew Research Center data, is that "they agree with Horatio Alger," they believe in socioeconomic mobility, that "most people can get ahead with hard work."  According to the Pew study, although only 14 percent of lower-income Democrats have that belief, 76 percent of lower-income Republicans do.  This is surely a remarkable difference.

This is where "Class in America" comes in.  It has been well known that economic inequality began to increase in the mid-1970s.  People disagree about how bad this is in itself, but those who think it isn't usually do so because they believe there is sufficient socioeconomic mobility, that people can overcome their socioeconomic birthplace by hard work.  There was a time when research might have seemed to bear that out.  In 1987, Gary Becker "summed up the research by saying that mobility in the United States was so high that very little advantage was passed down from one generation to the next."  Many researchers believed that the effects of socioeconomic birthplace tended to wash out over two generations.

The problem is that the past research turns out to have been deeply flawed, and more recent research has shown significantly less, and significantly decreasing, mobility.  So much so, indeed, that the Times quotes my Michigan economist colleague, Garry Solon, as saying that the argument that  inequality doesn't matter because of socioeconomic mobility is not "respectable in scholarly circles anymore."  A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, for example, found less mobility in the 1980s than the 1970s, and less still in the 1990s.

None of this should be surprising to my generation.  (I'm fifty-eight.)  The opportunities for parental investment in our children's "skill set"--SAT preparation, music lessons, organized sports activities (of a dizzying variety), and exotic travel, educational, and even community service opportunities--certainly goes well beyond anything we ourselves experienced.  And for their part, elite colleges and universities compete ever more feverishly for students with the most impressive portfolios (never mind legacy admits).

It is interesting to contemplate the possibility that the phenomenon of increased lower-income Republicans is based (even partly) on a belief in socioeconomic mobility that is, at least increasingly, a myth.

To his credit, David Brooks notes that "when you look at how Republicans behave in office, you notice that they are often clueless when it comes to understanding the lower-class folks who have put them there."  And Brooks spends half his column arguing that Republicans should be doing significantly more to level the playing field and less to protect corporate interests.  Might there be an opportunity here for Republicans and Democrats who are concerned about obstacles to socioeconomic mobility to make common cause?


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There's an interesting post over at Left2Right about the ongoing series in the New York Times about class in America. One of the things the post discusses is the notion of socioeconomic mobility, and how various studies have shown that this type of m... [Read More]

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Posted by: Simple Simon


You raise some interesting points, but the American Dream is still alive and well. It may be necessary to work harder and longer to get there, but it can be had. Will everyone make it? Probably not and I would not doubt the numbers of those who reach the Horatio Alger transition from rags to riches is declining. Most folks miss the point. It is joy of getting there that is the fun part.

Still, what has the Democratic Party offered lately? Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John Kennedy would probably think hard about their votes today if they had to look at the state of the "Party of the People".

Posted by: Simple Simon | May 15, 2005 12:54:25 PM

Posted by: Jonathan Lundell

There's a directly relevant study from the US Dept of Education (blogged here) suggests that school performance is largely determined by factors that are already fixed at birth (parents' education, income, age, etc) and almost not at all by bootstrap-pullling.

Posted by: Jonathan Lundell | May 15, 2005 2:41:06 PM

Posted by: Sans Serfs

The fact is that the Republicans are offering at least some ideas to help with class mobiity: personal savings accounts, school vouchers, medical savings accounts, etc. Democrats are for: what? Higher taxes to support failed educational and economic programs which tend to do EXACTLY what the poster is talking about - decrease social mobility by infantilizing and disempowering the poor.

Posted by: Sans Serfs | May 15, 2005 2:43:52 PM

Posted by: Jeff Younger

Simple Simon, almost every study I'm aware of has concluded that teacher quality is the most important factor influencing student achievement in all demographics. The US Department Education publication 'Education Statistics Quarterly' (Vol. 1, Issue 1) states that "The quality of teachers is undoubtedly among the most important factors shaping the learning and growth of students. Moreover, the largest single component of the cost of education in any country is teacher compensation. But despite a longstanding recognition of the importance of teacher quality, it is, surprisingly, among the least understood issues in education."

It could be that TEACHERS are to blame for our education woes, not student demographics.

Posted by: Jeff Younger | May 15, 2005 3:39:08 PM

Posted by: Sans Serfs

Probably what is to blame for the poor quality [most] of our public educational system is it's monopoly status, tenure system, tolerance of incompetence, etc. IE it's a highly imperfect market.

BTW - this from the NY TImes about teacher pay:


And here is a discussion of how much expenditures in NYC, for example, have risen recently and where the money is going:


The left's answer to education as far as I've heard is: more federal money! But paying a monopolist more money won't increase the level of service, it will probably just increase waste.

Education should be an area where everyone should be able to come together to agree that out current system is failed and doesn't deserve more financial support without wholesale restructuring.

To not face this, and has, decreased class mobility - it's the fault of those who can't, or won't, stop protecting special interest groups like the teacher's unions. For shame.

Posted by: Sans Serfs | May 15, 2005 3:56:20 PM

Posted by: Don Herzog

Stephen has already complained that "Democrats have also traditionally cast a blind eye at teachers' unions who have opposed measures such as merit pay and substantially greater teacher responsibility that, in my view, are necessary to improve public education."

And I have plugged school choice.

Posted by: Don Herzog | May 15, 2005 4:15:33 PM

Posted by: Gary Imhoff

Has the liberal political message to the poor really come down to convincing them that the "American Dream" is dead, their social mobility is limited, their individual efforts are futile, their efforts to better their lives through hard work or education are useless, and that the only way they can improve their lives is through government programs to redistribute income?

Are poor people necessarily conservative if they believe that they can better their lives and the lives of their children through their own ambition, efforts, education, and work?

If so, will liberal or conservative poor people do better in life? Which political philosophy is really in the best interests of the poor? And which political party will, over time, attract more poor people?

Posted by: Gary Imhoff | May 15, 2005 4:33:44 PM

Posted by: Sans Serfs

Good. These issues are at the heart of the problem. But the Democrats have been not just against these types of reforms, they have been largely **virulently** against them, or even just experiments in these directions.

And in terms of increasing class mobility, I think everyone will agree that improving education is far more important than trying to increase levels of transfer payments or benefits after education has failed.

Posted by: Sans Serfs | May 15, 2005 4:37:02 PM

Posted by: detached observer

"The fact is that the Republicans are offering at least some ideas to help with class mobiity: personal savings accounts, school vouchers, medical savings accounts, etc. Democrats are for: what? Higher taxes to support failed educational and economic programs which tend to do EXACTLY what the poster is talking about - decrease social mobility by infantilizing and disempowering the poor. "

Kind of funny, then, that income inequality has consistently grown under Republican administrations but not Democratic ones; and that Republican administrations have consistently been great for the upper class and not so for everyone else.

Posted by: detached observer | May 15, 2005 4:37:59 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

The problem is that the past research turns out to have been deeply flawed, and more recent research has shown significantly less, and significantly decreasing, mobility. So much so, indeed, that the Times quotes my Michigan economist colleague, Garry Solon, as saying that the argument that inequality doesn't matter because of socioeconomic mobility is not "respectable in scholarly circles anymore." A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, for example, found less mobility in the 1980s than the 1970s, and less still in the 1990s.

Could you link to more information, if any is readily available online, regarding the alleged flaws of the earlier studies and to some of the more recent studies showing contrary findings?

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | May 15, 2005 4:48:53 PM

Posted by: oldmountaingoat

Good post from Gary Imhoff: "Has the liberal political message to the poor really come down to convincing them that the "American Dream" is dead..."

IMO the answer is yes. If only more of the left sounded like Don Herzog, then a productive political dialog could take place. Instead we hear, "give up, all is hopeless." Fortunately there are groups, like Chinese Americans, that don't listen and continue to place hope in education. Is it the political left's assertion that education no longer provides a good economic future in America? In such a climate is it any wonder that disadvantaged people, with drive and initiative, are repulsed by the negativism coming from the left?

Posted by: oldmountaingoat | May 15, 2005 5:58:45 PM

Posted by: Frederick

D. A. Ridgely: "Could you link ..." You should just take his word for it. You can ignore the "deeply flawed" past scientific studies now and accept the new scientific studies. They can't have any flaws if arguments against their conclusions aren't "respectable in scholarly circles anymore." Especially if the respected New York Times quotes a respected scholar at the respected University of Michigan as saying so. It's all scientific and respectable. What could the 76% of low income Republicans know about their own prospects, and those of their friends and relatives? They're not social scientists. They're not even respectable now. They're just lower class people. A three-week series in the respected New York Times will explain it all to upper class people.

Posted by: Frederick | May 15, 2005 7:41:56 PM

Posted by: Josh Jasper

Ah, the lauded personal 'savings acount'. Yep, that's going to fix poor people's lives, because when you're living paycheck to paycheck, and still living beyond your means, a 'saving account' to put in whatever money you have left over is a great idea.

Except you don't have any money left over.

My answer, as a leftist to solve the states educational problems is more funding. Yep, college grants. Cheaper loans. Scholarships, and if we could manage it, free college tuition for almost everyone, much like many areas of europe has.

As for "wholesale restructuring" of the education system, I've never seen a useful right wing suggestion for that.

Posted by: Josh Jasper | May 15, 2005 7:47:06 PM

Posted by: Carl

"… much like many areas of europe has."

'Cos we all know Europe has that class problem clean licked.

I'm sorry, I support those same reforms that you do, but we shouldn't kid ourselves into thinking that they can make class go away overnight.

Posted by: Carl | May 15, 2005 8:00:34 PM

Posted by: LPFabulous

Josh: We've all seen what an unqualified success European education has been. And we all know that the best way to fix a system with serious distribution and incentive problems is to give its product to everyone for free. With pretend economists like you, it's no wonder leftists are a dying breed. Keep harping, though. Your little lecture on what poor people are allowed to do with their money was particularly inspiring.

As for Frederick: be nicer to Gary Solon. He's a very good labor economist who came to the university pretty late. No ivory tower elitist, he.

Posted by: LPFabulous | May 15, 2005 8:00:50 PM

Posted by: Sans Serfs

Josh Jasper:

1. If you don't think that the poor or lower middle class are already paying into social security I suggest you take a little time to review that subject. The personal savings accounts just give them some control over the investment process. An by the way you really don't have to be remotely well-off anymore to have IRAs or brokerage accounts. That's good, isn't it?

2. The eduational problem arises a long time before the college years. I too support the ability of more educational grants in the form of vouchers for everyone so they and their families can choose where to educate themselves from first grade til 12th grade, then large loan programs for college that need to be repaid by force of the IRS/wage garnishing/etc..

3. In terms of restructuring the education system, the voucher proposals would do that through hundreds of new schools springing up, some good some bad. Through competition and selection, stronger schools would inevitably be the result.

Posted by: Sans Serfs | May 15, 2005 8:35:30 PM

Posted by: Josh Jasper


*shrug* I've *been* poor. It has nothing to do with what one *can* do with one's money. Being poor means you live paycheck to paycheck, and often supliment it with government assistance. Being poor means you're a few weeks of no-pay from loosing your place to live.

So, yeah, a free college education, at that time in my life, might have helped a hell of a lot.

I'm not a pretend economist. I'm not any sort of economist, I'm a real, non ivory tower human being who's been out in the world. I've also been to countries where educationw was a lot more subsidised than the pathetic state we have here in the US. Although I'm not an economist, I can read statistics enough to know that, europe as in America, a college degree means a huge jump in the standard of living.

Education in American is absurdly over priced, and under funded by the government as compared to the entirety of the civilized world. It's silly to pretend that this is a feature, and not a bug.

Sans Serif: An by the way you really don't have to be remotely well-off anymore to have IRAs or brokerage accounts. That's good, isn't it?

It would be, if having a savings was possible when you're poor. It's not.

Carl: an undergraduate degree won't make class go away overnight, but it will help quickly. People with at least undergrad degrees marry later, engage in family planning, and thier kids are more likley to go to college as well, and repeat the trend. It can address the more self replicating problems that the poor have: no prospects for advancement due to lack of education, large families,

Posted by: Josh Jasper | May 15, 2005 10:20:05 PM

Posted by: Bret

It's interesting that the "Federal Reserve Bank of Boston ... found less mobility ..." and is located in a blue state, while the apparently "deeply flawed" study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas (located in a red state) finds:

Judging by a constant measure of living standards -- income quintiles of 1975 -- 39.2 percent of those individuals in the lowest income quintile in 1975 managed, by 1991, to achieve a real income comparable to that of the highest income group in 1975. Only 2.3 percent of this group remained at a living standard equal to the lowest of 1975. Of those individuals who were at the highest living standard in 1975, 69.4 percent were able to at least maintain that standard.
An absolute majority of those Americans who were in the bottom 20 percent in income in 1975 were also in the top 20 percent of 1975 incomes at some point over the next 16 years.
Could it be that Feds are actually politically motivated by the politics of the people of the state they live in?

I guess I would like to see the links to the Boston Fed's studies so I can see what they've discovered. I'm also a little curious as to what is meant exactly by "respectable in scholarly circles anymore." Are think tanks "scholarly circles" or only certain universities.

Posted by: Bret | May 15, 2005 10:20:48 PM

Posted by: Douglas Dukeman

We'll be really lucky if the small percentage of money that we'd be allowed to invest in personal savings accounts accumulates enough interest to offset inflation, and that's just assuming we'll do as well economically in the coming years as we have in the last century. The whole savings account program itself drastically undercuts the whole system, fails to address solvency at all, and causes pretty much everybody to take a cut in their social security benefits. And if you think the "three-legged stool" of retirement is more than just social security for low-income Americans, you are kidding yourself. I don't know any of the parents of my students who have enough expendable cash to invest in IRAs or put away in savings. It's a one-legged stool, and it's all Social Security. And I've seen these my student's homes, their parents aren't wasting their money on extravagances. They are barely getting by, while living in slums that cost them an arm and a leg. It might be quite easy to work yourself from low-wage job to low-wage job, but in the end, you still haven't climbed any ladder of American success.

And oh, please someone try teaching middleschoolers in the South Bronx for a year or two, and then you can come whining to me about how my $39,000 a year is far more money than I deserve. Maybe I should be paying 50% of my salary for my slum housing rent, rather than 40%, eh? My rent is scheduled to rise faster than my salary too! I'm so excited.

Furthermore, if you think still, as an anti-tax man quoted in the NYTimes article stated, something to the effect of "those who cannot do, teach" or "those who have no brainpower for anything else, teach", then you are either incredibly naive, or are espousing some hidden agenda that sacrifices the noble efforts of countless underpaid, yes underpaid teachers to your political crusade to prove some infantile point.

Wake up, please, before your comatose state injures us all.

Posted by: Douglas Dukeman | May 15, 2005 10:25:55 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Mr. Dukeman:

Please don't take my questions as an attack, but if you're dissatisfied with your overall compensation as a teacher (in which I would include what I take to be the personal satisfaction you derive from the job), why do you teach? Also, if the students at your school are capable of getting a good education (or, phrased differently, the school is capable of providing a good education), why don't more of those students educate themselves out of poverty. Since you are there in the trenches, as it were, I'd be interested in hearing your perspective.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | May 15, 2005 11:10:13 PM

Posted by: goin mobile

Imhoff hit the nail on the head. Shortly after the election, the left began to ask "how can the people in Kansas be so damn stupid?" and this is part of the NYT's take on that question.

Posted by: goin mobile | May 15, 2005 11:31:00 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

An observation or two on the NYT piece, itself. Unsurprisingly, it reads like a Times piece.

Here's a nice quote: "[M]erit, it turns out, is at least partly class-based. Parents with money, education and connections cultivate in their children the habits that the meritocracy rewards. When their children then succeed, their success is seen as earned."

Well, yes. And the point is? Admitting that it is more likely that such children will develop such habits, does that gainsay the notion that it is the habits, themselves, that typically lead to success?

Also, there's one of those fun "Rank Yourself" tests. I fell comfortably within the upper 10 percent when my score for the four categories were averaged. Adjusting income and wealth figures for inflation, my parents fell somewhere around the lower 10 percent. It proves nothing, of course, but it was interesting to note.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | May 15, 2005 11:56:37 PM

Posted by: Coove

It's fun to watch the typical right wing response to any data that doesn't fit their world view: dismiss it as biased and wish it away.

To me, the lesson that should be learned from the NYT article today is not that the poor should give up. It's simply that they should stop buying into the rigid faith based right-wing economics that is destroying the American Dream and start supporting pragmatic politicians who understand that Democracy cannot thrive in a society with huge income disparity between the top and the bottom.

Privatizing Social Security won't do anything to fix this. Corporate tax breaks won't do anything to fix this. The way to increase class mobility is to improve education from pre-school onward...high school is too late. It's to limit the predatory lending that snares the lower classes before they have even established themsleves. It's to limit the ability of big corporate money to buy their very own house majority leaders to do their bidding. It's to recognize that in many situations governement is more efficient than markets which naturally move toward monopoly.

I don't have time to address the typical pot shots at teachers taken above. But for those of you so enamored with the free market, you should know that the way you are going to attract the best quality teachers is through highers salaries. There is a reason top students attend law school more than schools of education. It's called money.

Posted by: Coove | May 16, 2005 1:44:08 AM

Posted by: Matty

Mr. Ridgely, your question reminded me of this article from The Economist (in an issue published five months ago).

Posted by: Matty | May 16, 2005 2:07:53 AM

Posted by: Bret

Why do those poor families in Kansas vote Republican?

Though I am neither poor nor Republican, I'm not rich either, nor am I anti-Republican (it's rare, but I have voted for a Republican candidate at least once in the past), and I'd like to offer my perspective on why I prefer rather lower redistribution.

The first thing to notice is that the vast majority of the poor Republicans are parents. Once I became a parent, I very rapidly transitioned from caring about my personal well being to having far more concern for my children's future, and their children's future, etc. One thing that I've found interesting about my contemplating the correct political stance to take in order to optimize my descendants' future is that it's somewhat similar to Rawls' original position. I certainly have some influence over my children and their future, but with each successive generation, my influence rapidly dwindles. I essentially have a veil of ignorance regarding my descendants' position. As a result, assuming a static economy and world, it would make a lot of sense for me to support substantial redistribution to ensure a reasonable life for my descendants, just as Rawls argued.

But I don't assume a static economy and world. I assume that progress will happen and that people will get wealthier over time. Furthermore, I assume that various political structures can vary the rate of progress dramatically. For example, communism generated real GDP per capita growth rates several percentage points below those growth rates generated by market economies that had substantially less redistribution. Indeed, if it wasn't for market economies producing new technology that was absorbed and utilized by the communist bloc, those communist bloc countries might actually have had negative growth rates for their entire existence. In other words, it's easier to grow when you are behind and someone else is doing the developing for you.

Let's say there are two political systems A and B. Assume that A and B start with the same GDP per capita. If A has a real GDP per capita growth rate per year that's 3% higher than B, then after 100 years, A's GDP per capita will be over nineteen times larger than B's.

Now let's consider a poor Republican family from Kansas with three children and only one bread winner earning minimum wage. That's about $15,000 per year or about $3,000 per year per family member. The GDP per capita in the United States is about $40,000. Subtract approximately 40% that various government entities consume and that leaves about $24,000. Complete redistribution, assuming no costs, would make that Kansas family eight times richer – for now. But in 100 years, assuming no class mobility whatsoever, total redistribution (communism) would leave the descendants of the family with the same $24,000 per person, while a market economy would leave them with nineteen times the current $3,000 per year, or $57,000 per family member, or at least twice as well off.

The only purpose of the example above is to illustrate that small differences in growth make a huge difference in wealth when compounded over a long time horizon. There are obviously several oversimplifications, a couple of which I'll address now.

The GDP per capita growth is not distributed evenly – the rich have always received a substantially larger share than the poor and will continue to do so. This is true, but then just waiting longer still gets our Kansas family's descendants up to the $57,000 per family member. The numbers are just examples. Growth overcomes all obstacles eventually.

The comparison above is communism versus market economy – what about something in between? The problem is that the relationship is probably not linear. In other words, going half way between the market economy of the United States and communism may not halve the growth rate. It might be better than half. However, it may be much worse, with the growth being much more similar to communism than a market economy. Also, Hayek (in the Road to Serfdom) warns that as the amount of redistribution increases, it has a tendency to push the political structure toward totalitarianism.

Another issue is that it's a mistake to assume that socioeconomic mobility is required for people to feel that they are “getting ahead”. I don't think that they're trying to get ahead of everybody else. They are just trying to feel like they are making progress. Because technology is driving down the cost of a lot of goods (cell phones, iPods, digital cameras, etc.), from their perspective, they probably are.

That's why they don't vote for more redistribution.

Posted by: Bret | May 16, 2005 2:15:35 AM

Posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw

I suspect two of the reasons that class in America doesn't play so well as those on the left believe it should are A) the difference between upper and lower class is not a question of starving on the street or freezing to death in the winter, but often things like do you have a plasma TV or merely an old style big screen with a tube and B) Democrats believe that they should ally themselves with the lower class for economic purposes only, but that ivory-tower leftist ideas about morality and other cultural issues should predominate--in other words, they feel your pain, but think you are idiots if you are in the lower class.

Posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw | May 16, 2005 2:48:21 AM

Posted by: Jadagul

The other issue, of course, that makes this sort of discussion sticky is the idea of genes and other heritable factors. First, it's arguable (sorry, don't have time to find an article, but they're out there) that part of our apparently decreased social mobility is actually a result of our meritocratic society. If merit is partially determined genetically, those in the bottom fifth are probably going to have kids with genetically-determined tendencies downwards. So it's more likely (certainly not definite, but more likely) that kids born in the bottom fifth would wind up there anyway. This would also explain the decreasing social mobility, in part--it took a while for us to sort ourselves out like this, but now that we are sorted, a meritocracy won't be very mobile.

The second issue is the extent to which environmental factors we can't control screw over poor kids. A large portion of IQ (which has a pretty decent corellation with income) seems to be fixed by age three or four; helping kids from poor households that don't provide stimulating developments would require direct intervention into the household and family life. A recent article argues that the main thing holding back poor kids is the environment at home--which is really, really hard to fix, and doubly so for governmental actors.

Posted by: Jadagul | May 16, 2005 5:24:28 AM

Posted by: Steve Horwitz

I find this whole discussion of why poor folks vote Republican to be symptomatic of why poor folks vote Republican: when one party seems to be suggesting that you're stupid for voting the way you do, are you more likely to be grateful for having the scales removed from your eyes and thank them profoundly for revealing to you your own stupidity, or are you more likely to feel as though that party probably has no ability to understand you and your interests and concerns?

It may or may not be true that poorer folks who vote GOP are voting against their own economic interests. But:

1. Isn't that an empirical question about the consequences of various policies, and NOT a given, which is the way it seems to get treated very often? And it's worth noting that if we assume that people vote based on what politicians SAY they are going to do, as opposed to the policies that actually emerge down the road, we should be looking to see how the platforms and promises of each party speak to poorer rural folks' interests, rather than the policies that emerge.

2. Why believe economic interests are the only/major ones in play here? Unfortunately, for me as a libertarian, foreign policy and social issues probably explain the attraction more. Combine that with a belief in mobility, which these folks may well perceive is promoted by GOP economic promises, and you've probably got the ticket.

The whole sense that emerges from all this post-election handwringing that somehow this GOP-voting rural poor/working class folks are so misguided that we need to study them almost anthropologically is just really unsettling. I don't throw around the "elitism" charge at the Left all that often, but boy this subject gets me really tempted.

Finally, with D.A., I'd be interested to get some citations on the more recent mobility studies that challenge the ones from the late 90s.

Posted by: Steve Horwitz | May 16, 2005 8:33:01 AM

Posted by: Steve

"People disagree about how bad this is in itself, but those who think it isn't usually do so because they believe there is sufficient socioeconomic mobility, that people can overcome their socioeconomic birthplace by hard work. "

I don't feel like reading all the comments to this piece, but note that the quote, above, is in no way contradicted by the second half of this article. Its amazing that academics cannot distinguish between correlation and causation, in spite of the fact that they (supposedly) teach it all the time. Look:
1) Many people can get ahead by hard work
2) Many people don't get ahead.
It doesn't follow that
3A) Many people can't get ahead by hard work.
Rather, its entirely possible that
3B) Many people didn't work hard.
I suspect its the residuals of communism, still corrupting the minds of our youth (and our professors) that simply can't fathom 3B. Because, in communist's minds, there really are no people-there are just market forces. If there is a condition (health, income distribution, music preferences, literacy rate, or in this case, social mobility), that condition MUST be caused by market forces-it couldn't possibly be caused by human behavior, because human behavior doesn't really exist. And causation/correlation? Herr Doktor here has established correlation (social mobility in 1990 US economy is X). He has come nowhere near to establishing causation (social mobility in 1990 is CAUSED by X). Are we really supposed to believe that income distribution in a nation of 300 million people is explained by the admission preferences of 20 ivy league schools competing for maybe 100,000 people (perhaps a different admission preference would somehow admit-and enrich-the other 299,900,000 folks in the country)? It's laughable, really. And we wonder why liberal college students resort to throwing pies. If this were the best training in argument, logic, and rhetoric I could count on, I'd throw a pie and mock masturbate, too.


Posted by: Steve | May 16, 2005 8:51:22 AM

Posted by: pedro

Isn't that an empirical question about the consequences of various policies, and NOT a given, which is the way it seems to get treated very often?

Fair enough. But methinks the riddle is that polling indicates that the sector of the population under discussion actually agrees more with the Democrats on economic policy than with the Republicans, doesn't it? They may not be, as a matter of fact, voting against their interests, but they are voting against their preferences, and insofar as they are doing so, they are indeed voting against their interests.

Posted by: pedro | May 16, 2005 8:51:50 AM

Posted by: Steve Horwitz

If so, Pedro, then I'm perfectly willing to accept that their non-economic preferences (foreign policy/root for the home team and social issues) wind up being the ones that determine their voting.

Posted by: Steve Horwitz | May 16, 2005 9:14:00 AM

Posted by: S. Weasel

Neither economic inequality nor social mobility has the slightest intrinsic meaning to human happiness. Surely, it doesn't matter how much the rich get richer as long as they're not doing it at anyone's expense (I realize many on the left believe wealth is a zero-sum proposition, but I see no evidence this is so).

Sure, rich people are just plain irritating, but it's vastly more important to know if poverty in this country is miserable or tolerable. Or how hard it is to move from the bottom to the middle. Surely we all know people who have opted for poverty in order to persue a desired lifestyle (somewhere in America, there's a potter of middle-class background living in a barn and paying me a pittance rent).

Think how our forebears would have viewed a country where one of the the biggest problems facing the poor is that they are dangerously fat!

Posted by: S. Weasel | May 16, 2005 9:16:19 AM

Posted by: Conchis


From the bits you've excerpted, the different results of the Dallas Fed study seem likely to arise because they've decided to address a different question: focusing on absolute, rather than relative income mobility.

This says nothing about the relative importance of one over the other. Both are relevant, though personally, I tend to think that relative income is more important to people's actual well-being than it is often given credit for.

Posted by: Conchis | May 16, 2005 9:35:54 AM

Posted by: john t

I'd be interested in what part demographics played in studies of mobility,demographically speaking this is hardly the same country it was in the 60's. What impact has legal and illegal immigration had on income averaging. Also the influence of young blacks on the statistical models used,if we're told that one out of three are or will be in jail would that not affect the numbers as well raise other questions about education,cultural factors,and so on. Also,if the 60's are going to be used as a starting point it's should be remembered that for a number of years following WW ll America stood alone as the economic colossus in the world,hardly the best period upon which to make comparisons. I wonder about the long term tracking of the socially immobile,who rises and why,we're not talking about a monolithic block but what kind of long term follow up has been done to ascertain the numbers who emerge from this economic morass. Last,there is another word that can be used for class,hierarchy. I've rarely or never heard of a society worthy of the name that didn't have it. Understanding this may prevent us from emulating the Spartans,all of whom ate at the same table with the hero's getting an extra plate.

Posted by: john t | May 16, 2005 9:52:39 AM

Posted by: Matty

Sebastian Holsclaw writes:

"[T]he difference between upper and lower class is not a question of starving on the street or freezing to death in the winter, but often things like do you have a plasma TV or merely an old style big screen with a tube . . . ."

Are you serious? The economic problem faced by people in the "lower" class is that they cannot afford to upgrade their big-screen TVs to Plasma? I suppose this is a serious situation, especially when compared to, say, a lack of health insurance.

Steve Horowitz writes:

"Finally, with D.A., I'd be interested to get some citations on the more recent mobility studies that challenge the ones from the late 90s."

I direct you (as I directed him) to this article published a few months ago in The Economist.

Posted by: Matty | May 16, 2005 10:13:26 AM

Posted by: bakho

What have Democrats done for the working class lately? Beat back Bush plans to end Social Security. Democrats support increasing the minimum wage. The EITC. Democrats have been leading the effort to rebuild urban infrastructure and clean up brownfields.

The reasons why people vote for one party over another are complex. Do not assume as some do that support for a candidate or a party means support for all the major policies. There are major divisions over issues both within and between the political parties. Many who voted for Bush because of WarOnTerror were appalled that Bush would lead a fight to cut Social Security benefits. If you think SS will not change no matter who is president, then you are free to vote based on other issue. There is a lot of that dynamic especially among people who do not think that government policy has much effect on their personal wealth.

Issues that would make a big difference to the working poor, like minimum wage are blocked from even being discussed by GOP control of Congress.

Posted by: bakho | May 16, 2005 11:36:54 AM

Posted by: S. Weasel

This makes it hard for the class struggle to spark fire in 21st Century America:

The average "poor" person, as defined by the government, has a living standard far higher than the public imagines. The following are facts about persons defined as "poor" by the Census Bureau, taken from various government reports:

Forty-six percent of all poor households actually own their own homes. The average home owned by persons classified as poor by the Census Bureau is a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage, and a porch or patio.

Seventy-six percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, 30 years ago, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.

Only 6 percent of poor households are overcrowded. More than two-thirds have more than two rooms per person.

The typical poor American has more living space than the average individual living in Paris, London, Vienna, Athens, and other cities throughout Europe. (These comparisons are to the average citizens in foreign countries, not to those classified as poor.)

Nearly three-quarters of poor households own a car; 30 percent own two or more cars.

Ninety-seven percent of poor households have a color television; over half own two or more color televisions.

Seventy-eight percent have a VCR or DVD player; 62 percent have cable or satellite TV reception.

Seventy-three percent own microwave ovens, more than half have a stereo, and a third have an automatic dishwasher.

Overall, the typical American defined as poor by the government has a car, air conditioning, a refrigerator, a stove, a clothes washer and dryer, and a microwave. He has two color televisions, cable or satellite TV reception, a VCR or DVD player, and a stereo. He is able to obtain medical care. His home is in good repair and is not overcrowded. By his own report, his family is not hungry, and he had sufficient funds in the past year to meet his family's essential needs. While this individual's life is not opulent, it is equally far from the popular images of dire poverty conveyed by the press, liberal activists, and politicians.

Source: the Heritage Foundation January, 2004

By any objective historical measure, the vast majority of the poor of this country (among legal citizens, at any rate) are simply somewhat less rich than the rest of us.

Posted by: S. Weasel | May 16, 2005 11:39:36 AM

Posted by: bakho

As far as income levels go, the least well-off are overwhelmingly Democratic: Those earning less than $20,000 a year call themselves Democratic 43 percent to 18 percent and those earning $20,000 to $30,000 Democratic 37 percent to 24 percent. Those making between $30,000 and $50,000 are Democrats, 34 percent to 30 percent, while those making between $50,000 and $75,000 are more Republican, 35 percent to 29 percent. People who make $75,000 or more are strongly GOP, 39 percent to 28 percent.

I think you have to be very very careful about how "working class" whites" are defined and be aware that there are many policies that give an advantage to working class whites and a disadvantage to blacks. Waitress is probably the wrong image for a GOP working woman. Secretary might be far more appropriate.

Posted by: bakho | May 16, 2005 11:59:15 AM

Posted by: Bret

From The Economist article that Matty links to: "Not all social scientists accept the conclusion that mobility is declining. Gary Solon, of the University of Michigan, argues that there is no evidence of any change in social-mobility rates, down or up."

Is Gary Solon the same as the Garry Solon referenced by Stephen Darwall? I guess the two statements attributed to Gary/Garry Solon aren't mutually exclusive, but they certainly have a different feel.

The numbers in The Economist article are hardly alarming (to me, anyway). For example,

In the 1970s 12% of the population moved from the bottom fifth to either the fourth or the top fifth. In the 1980s and 1990s the figures shrank to below 11% for both decades. The figure for those who stayed in the top fifth increased slightly but steadily over the three decades, reinforcing the sense of diminished social mobility.
From 12% to 11%? Increased slightly? Are these really even within the measurement error? Ho hum. I was worried there for a second, but now I think I'll drift off and daydream about being wealthy one day.

Posted by: Bret | May 16, 2005 12:17:43 PM

Posted by: noah

The so-called Left here frequently proclaims that they too favor school choice for example.

OK. Maybe they ought to start a L2L blog to proselytize their bretheren. The Republicans may have majorities in both houses but they have no where near the political power to force thru school vouchers.

Posted by: noah | May 16, 2005 1:04:57 PM

Posted by: Isaac

For Gary Solon's latest views on intergenerational mobility, check out this article.
Key paragraph:

The research conducted so far on intergenerational mobility trends has produced
wildly divergent estimates. In this paper, we argue that this confusing array of evidence
is an artifact of imprecise estimation, which in turn has stemmed from inefficient use of
the available data. By drawing more fully on the information in the Panel Study of
Income Dynamics, we generate more reliable estimates of the recent time-series variation
in intergenerational mobility. For the most part, these estimates do not reveal major
changes in intergenerational mobility.

Posted by: Isaac | May 16, 2005 1:19:06 PM

Posted by: Simple Simon

I am amazed by the numbers of folks that equate success with an undergraduate degree. Bill Gates should be a pauper by that standard.

I am for getting the cost of tuition and books down so working folks can sent their kids to good quality junior colleges, state universities, and technical schools, but I run into over-educated failures every day. It isn't the education that matters; it is the attitude.

Poor folks have it tough, but everyone has a chance however slight. I have yet to find a place in the Constitution that promises a house in the suburbs with a two-car garage stocked with a bass-boat, motorcycle, and a R.V.

I live in Texas and most of the folks on my street were not born in the USA. I can't say if they are satisfied with the current system, but I can say that they are working hard and trying to provide a better life for their children.

Posted by: Simple Simon | May 16, 2005 1:40:49 PM

Posted by: Chris

Since the topic is socioeconomic mobility does anyone have an idea of why a poor family would need a bag of lime?

Posted by: Chris | May 16, 2005 2:55:57 PM

Posted by: Josh Jasper

I suspect its the residuals of communism, still corrupting the minds of our youth (and our professors) that simply can't fathom 3B.

OK, have you got anything to back your suspicion that poverty is, in large part, caused by layabout good for nothings? See, I've been poor. I've also lived and worked with people far worse off then I was. Single mothers, for instance. I've seen them work grinding, soul killing minimum wage jobs, fight for child care, and get totaly fucked when a "communist" entitlement program that they were depending on to perform some vital function (transport, child care, houseing subsidy, etc...) got cut by some conservative asshole who claimed it was being abused by layabout good for nothings.

So, I'd like to hear the other side of the story. Of course, I'm not an economist, so some actual data from a real economist would be useful. All I know is, the working poor people I know work hard.

S. Weasel: I can't bring myself to trust anything the Heritage foundation says. They're constantly falsifying data. Get better sources.

Posted by: Josh Jasper | May 16, 2005 3:40:42 PM

Posted by: Ted

Mr. Weasel --

Poor people aren't obese because they eat too much, they're obese because they eat the wrong things, because they're poor and can't afford to eat better:

Also, I note that the Heritage Foundation report you cite above - which, surprise, blames poor people for being poor because they're lazy and unmarried - doesn't mention how much debt they're carrying to have what they have....

Posted by: Ted | May 16, 2005 4:17:18 PM

Posted by: Bret

Ted wrote: "Poor people aren't obese because they eat too much, they're obese because they eat the wrong things, because they're poor and can't afford to eat better."

While there is a "grain" of truth to that, surely you must realize how silly that statement seems. Clearly, if any obese person restricted their calorie intake enough, no matter what the source of calories, they would lose weight.

Posted by: Bret | May 16, 2005 4:27:29 PM

Posted by: Don Herzog

There's lots to say about this, but for now just consider this, from George Orwell's amazing Road to Wigan Pier:

The miner’s family spend only tenpence a week on green vegetables and tenpence half-penny on milk (remember that one of them is a child less than three years old), and nothing on fruit; but they spend one and nine on sugar (about eight pounds of sugar, that is) and a shilling on tea. The half-crown spent on meat might represent a small joint and the materials for a stew; probably as often as not it would represent four or five tins of bully beef. The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes—an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C. level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the English-man’s opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread.

Posted by: Don Herzog | May 16, 2005 4:43:17 PM

Posted by: AlanC9

"Poor folks have it tough, but everyone has a chance however slight" --Simple Simon

So, what percentage chance does there have to be for mobility to be no problem whatsoever? Are we talking lottery-ticket level?

Posted by: AlanC9 | May 16, 2005 6:50:13 PM

Posted by: CDC

Coove: "It's fun to watch the typical right wing response to any data that doesn't fit their world view: dismiss it as biased and wish it away."
Is that our "typical response"? Do you use "typical" to mean "average"" or most commonly occurring"? In any case, you must have some support for that statement. Let's see it.
And I didn't see any data. There was an assertion that such data existed. That data wasn't even summarized properly before a conclusion was spoon-fed to the few remaining people who take the NYT seriously.

Posted by: CDC | May 16, 2005 7:51:20 PM

Posted by: neal

If you ever wonder how to get your kid in an ivy league school, your chances would probably be better at a school like this: phillips exeter. In fact, if you go to the main list of schools, you find that many of these elite east coast schools are inordinately responsible for ivy league students. Communist like ideas such as "equal outcomes" in CA schools, and two parent workers hurt too, though I doubt that good SAT scores alone are going to get you into the ivy league schools.

Meanwhile, oppressive taxes imposed on the middle class, and attendent decreases in the tax burden of wealthy citizens (decreases in capital gains, estate taxes, and graded income taxes) all make for more difficulty in mobility. Not that I'm against lower taxes and decreasing government size, just that I see no reason to change the relative contributions especially given the increasing split between wealthy and middle class.

Those who like big government have successfully increased its size, but have been completely unable to share that cost with those with money and power. Instead, it increasingly burdens the middle class, while decreasing the liability of the upper classes. I feel the middle class has no representation in our government.

Posted by: neal | May 16, 2005 8:01:41 PM

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