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Upward Mobility In The United States: Is It Still Possible?


Recent front-page articles in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal newspapers suggest the United States may no longer be a place where someone with ambition is likely to go from rags to riches. The articles highlight a spirited debate among economists and sociologists as to whether it is more difficult today to succeed than in earlier times.

For many, the American dream of upward mobility is a reality. A New York Times poll finds that 45 percent of the people surveyed say their present economic status is higher than what they started with. This, compared to 38 percent who said their status was the same, and 18 percent who said they are worse off today than when they were younger.

On the question of whether it is more likely today to move up the economic ladder compared with 30 years ago, 40 percent of The Times respondents said "yes." Another 35 percent said the chances are the same today as then, while 23 percent said economic advancement is less likely now.

Economist Christopher Jencks at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government disputes the contention of some analysts that the so-called "escalator of upward mobility" does not move as quickly today as before. "No, I don't see much evidence that that's the case," he says, adding "They've never moved that fast, but I don't think there's much evidence that they've slowed down."

University of Chicago economist and Nobel Laureate Gary Becker agrees. "I see no evidence that, at least in the past 50 to 60 years, the tendency for people who come from lower income backgrounds to be able to rise up has become any weaker in the United States. There is some controversy over how strong it ever was, but I think it remains fairly constant," he says.

But Gail Christopher at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, DC disagrees. She says one's ability to improve economically is more difficult today, especially for those just entering the workforce. "There's not much question in my mind that the escalator is slowing down," she says. "It's crawling. When you look at young people today, even those who do manage to make it into college and to graduate, many of them are still facing not being able to find really good employment."

In order to gauge whether the American dream of upward mobility and success is still viable, Gary Becker cites two critical measures. "There's one between parents and children and grandchildren," he says. "And then, the one referring to 'If one starts a job at low earnings, how likely are you to become much higher in earnings over time?'"

In The New York Times survey, 39 percent of the respondents said they are better off financially than their parents were at the same age. Twenty seven percent said they were somewhat better off, with another 20 percent responding that their economic status was about the same as their parents. Economists call this "intergenerational mobility," but most people call it "The American Dream."

Gary Solon at the University of Michigan says the chances of doing better than your parents has remained about the same in recent years despite recessions and a changing mix of components that drive the U-S economy. "You would have thought you might have seen a decline in inter-generational income mobility. But, but if it's there, it has not been pronounced enough that it's easy to see in the data," he says.

But Avis Jones-DeWeever at the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington, DC says the future may be different because one sector of the economy that enabled upward mobility for many people has largely disappeared.

"The loss of the industrial society - or the industrial economy - really hit the middle class hard in this country, particularly the Black middle class," she says, adding "That was a huge avenue toward class ascension. (Those were) good paying jobs that didn't require a whole lot of formal education. (A worker could) be in that job for 20 or 30 years, retire and be able to live a comfortable life and send his or her child to college, for example."

Gary Becker says today's U.S. economy is very different. "We have to recognize first of all that we live mainly in a 'knowledge economy,'" he says. "And so, any way that we can achieve easier access to knowledge like education and training, particularly for people coming from more disadvantageous backgrounds, will help."

But at a time when education has become increasingly vital to achieving success, Christopher Jencks says access to higher education has become more divided along class lines. "The effect of family background on whether people are going to college seems to be increasing. That's partly, probably, because distribution of income is becoming more unequal and partly because tuition has been rising and so forth," he says.

Recent figures from the U.S. Congressional Budget Office show a widening gap between the rich and the rest of American society. The CBO reports that from 1979 to 2001, the after-tax income of the wealthiest one percent of U-S households rose 139 percent. Families in the middle 20 percent of the economic spectrum saw only a 17 percent gain, while for those in the bottom fifth of the economy, after-tax income only went up by nine percent.

Avis Jones-DeWeever says the current emphasis in higher education on scholarships for those getting top grades leaves behind many worthy people who cannot afford to pay for tuition. "We need to increase need-based awards to make sure that impoverished students who have the ability to go to college and who have the desire to go to college, can in fact go to college and not be burdened to death in terms of having to pay off thousands upon thousands of dollars in student loans," she says.

Economist Tom Hertz at American University in Washington, DC brings up something else: that parents have to take an active role to help ensure their children's success. "The educational performance of poor inner-city kids is not entirely the school's fault. It's also the fault of their parents and the home environments not being all that supportive." Mr. Hertz says parents must make it clear to their children that economic success depends on a drive for achievement and good work ethics.

Gail Christopher says something else is also needed - an effort by government to ensure access in major cities to better jobs, many of which are opening up in suburban areas. "One of the biggest challenges our policy-makers face today centers around transportation," she says. "We really have to think more creatively about transportation as it relates to finding opportunities for employment."

Many observers say achieving upward mobility today depends on the same things needed in previous times: ambition, determination, learning the right skills and strong work ethics. They say that despite a tough playing field, those willing to make the effort still have the opportunity to reach the goal of success.

This report first appeared on VOA News Now's Focus program. To see and hear other Focus reports, click here

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