Are We Heading Towards a Social Mobility Cliff?

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Generation X, the Millennials, even the Baby Boomers — all have been in the running for the dubious distinction of being the first generation to fare worse economically than their parents.

The good news is that no generation can yet make that claim. A study released Monday by The Pew Charitable Trusts shows that the vast majority of Americans are doing better than their parents were at the same age — in fact, 84 percent have higher household incomes than the families in which they grew up.

The bad news is that, especially in poorer families, higher incomes haven’t necessarily meant more accumulated wealth. Only half of Americans are wealthier than their parents were at their age (wealth = assets – debt). And as for the American promise of social and economic mobility — among people raised in the bottom fifth of the income ladder, 43 percent remain stuck there, and only 4 percent ever make it to the top.

Another new study looks at the opportunities afforded to today’s children, providing a glimpse of what the future might hold. Its author, Harvard professor Robert Putnam, warns of an “impending cliff in social mobility.”

Putnam believes that mobility is about to plummet due to collapsing family, community and social support systems. He quotes something that Laura Bush once said to him, “If you don’t know how long you’re going to keep your house or your job, you have less energy to invest in your kids.”

The New York TimesDavid Brooks writes:

“Putnam’s data verifies what many of us have seen anecdotally, that the children of the more affluent and less affluent are raised in starkly different ways and have different opportunities…. Equal opportunity, once core to the nation’s identity, is now a tertiary concern.”

Putnam’s work is ongoing but he presented some of his findings last month at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “The lines of difference are becoming more and more about class and less and less about race,” he told the crowd. By reframing the discussion as one of class and mobility instead of race and poverty, he hopes to help move the next generation out of the bottom and up the ladder.

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