At both the conservative Heritage Foundation and the liberal Economic Policy Institute, in both National Review and The New Republic, according to Democratic Senator Ron Wyden and Republican Senator Mike Lee, economic mobility in America is a matter of grave concern. Economists may disagree over how best to measure it, but few dispute that relative economic mobility in the U.S. has stalled over time and that it’s harder to go from rags to riches here than in other countries. When Americans learn just how many poor people remain stuck at the bottom, over half of them consider it “a major problem,” according to Pew’s Economic Mobility Project polls.
As Scott Winship, who has long studied these topics, concluded an article on the subject, “Increasing upward absolute mobility — for all, but with a particular focus on those who start out at the bottom — should be the primary goal of policymakers. The first political party that commits itself to putting upward mobility first and that credibly takes on the challenge will be ascendant.”
It’s great to see this bipartisan focus on shoring up the American dream (even if Congress remains gridlocked over what to do about it). But in all the talk about mobility, it’s easy to forget that, by definition, part of the population will be at the bottom of the income ladder. Some are just there temporarily: maybe they’re young people working their first job, or they’re temporarily working part-time while recovering from health problems. I’m more concerned about the many others who will be poor or borderline poor for most of their lives.
We should indeed help the children of janitors to become doctors and lawyers—but no matter how many of them succeed in doing so, some people will still end up working as janitors, garbagemen, fast food workers, and their future service-sector equivalents. Whether those people grew up poor or lost their inherited advantages through their own bad choices, and whether or not their own kids end up rich, they may still need help.
Along with studying how we can help people rise from the bottom, in sum, we should keep trying to make life at the bottom more bearable. That process could involve a host of initiatives: expanding the earned-income tax credit, enacting broader family-friendly tax reform, ensuring the accessibility of health care, supporting the development of childrearing skills, providing better avenues to credit than payday lenders, and more. Even if such proposals fail to raise levels of economic mobility, they could raise the living standards of those at the bottom. And that’s no small thing.