Research Shows Myths Behind U.S. Social Mobility

Is there any more 'American' story than the immigrant who earns success through hard work, determination and sheer grit?


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This story is ingrained in the American psyche, but recent research is exploding the myths of the land of opportunity. Perhaps the United States was never a classless society, but it is certainly more rigid today than ever. These days, if you're born into a poor family, you're likely to die poor. If you're born into riches, you'll stay rich. If your parents are middle-class, the chances of ending up on a higher rung of the economic ladder are far smaller than you might think.

According to research cited in a new paper written by Alan Berube, a Brookings Institution scholar and metropolitan policy expert, the U.S. is becoming increasingly less socially mobile. Across the 1990s, about 40 percent of U.S. families ended the decade in the same income bracket in which they began, versus 36-37 percent in the 1970s and 1980s. More than half the families at the bottom were still there after 10 years.

Several serious examinations of class mobility–or more accurately the lack thereof–are drawing attention to the barriers that hinder movement from one social class to the next. As the divide between the haves and have-nots grows, the more difficult it is to climb from one rung to the next, Berube wrote.

He pointed out that in 2004 and 2005, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, have all written series of articles on the subject of whether and how Americans are moving up the ladder. And in the United Kingdom, the issue has taken central stage in the public debate, Berube said in “Overcoming Barriers to Mobility: The Role of Place in the United States and UK.”

“One important strand of the UK mobility discussion has focused on the role of 'place' The central questions here seem to be (a) 'Does where you live affect your chances in life?' and (b) 'If so, how much?.' ” In U.S. newspapers, the influence of place was mentioned only in passing. Berube's paper outlines the potential role of a person's location on his or her economic future.

He stated that living in a deprived area may keep poor people poor in several ways. Poor neighborhoods separate people from their work geographically; the schools do not offer high-quality education; crime rates are higher, especially for violent crime; health care is poorer. Social expectations to retain a job, stay away from crime and avoid risky behaviors, are lower in poor neighborhoods, too.

The strongest evidence of “area effects” is in mental health. Researchers found that mental health improved greatly when the poor people in the studies moved to better neighborhoods. “Overall, they likened the magnitude of the effect to that found in 'some of the most effective clinical and pharmacological mental health interventions.' ” Berube wrote. Physical health improved dramatically as well.

Berube suggested that U.S. research could be applied to UK housing policy. If people living in concentrated areas of poverty could gain access to better neighborhoods, their chances of moving up and living a healthier life are much improved.

He also noted that improving neighborhoods is only one strategy to improve social mobility, as it can help only a minority of people in the U.S. and UK. “At the same time, our societies do owe these families whose progress is most inhibited by the current social order a shot at something far better,” Berube concluded. “Relieving concentrated deprivation seems a logical place to start.”

The report is included in a new book published by the Institute of Public Policy Research of London, “Going Places: Neighborhood, Ethnicity, and Social Change.” Read the entire chapter at http://www.brookings.edu/metro/pubs/20060410_ukmobility.htm

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