Why Mobility Matters

“A society with economic opportunity is one in which all children have a good chance of success regardless of the economic status of the family into which they are born. The United States has long been viewed as such a society–a place where with hard work most people can succeed, whatever their family background. With the rewards for economic success becoming bigger, as they have in recent decades, ensuring that competition is fair and open becomes even more important.

Relatively strong economic growth through much of U.S. history has meant that each generation could do better than the previous one, even if children remained in the same relative economic position as their parents. However, in recent decades family income growth has slowed.” (Future of Children, Opportunity in America, Executive Summary)

According to the US Census Bureau, in 2010, 15 percent of Americans lived below the poverty level, the highest number since 1993. That means a household income of $22,113 for a family of four. These levels of poverty are especially concerning when understood within the context of diminishing mobility in the United States.

As FOC senior editor Belle Sawhill writes in the New York Times:

“A growing body of evidence suggests that the United States, far from being the land of opportunity celebrated in our history and our literature, is instead a country where class matters after all, where upward mobility is constrained, especially among those born into the bottom ranks.

What could be done to improve the upward mobility chances of less advantaged children?

First, it would help if more parents were ready to take on the most important responsibility any adult normally assumes, which is the decision to have a child. Unfortunately, for far too many teens and young adults, this is not a carefully planned decision. Half of all children born to women under the age of 30 are born outside of marriage, and 70 percent of all pregnancies to single women in this age group are unplanned. Research shows that access to more effective (but expensive and hard-to-get) forms of contraception could help here.

Second, low-income children enter school far behind their more advantaged peers in vocabulary and learning-related behaviors such as the ability to sit still or follow directions. High-quality early-education programs can compensate for some of these deficits, but too few children are enrolled and too few programs are high quality. These children tend to fall further behind as they progress through school. Large numbers drop out of high school, enter the criminal justice system, or end up unemployed or earning very low wages. These trajectories can be changed in part by putting better teachers in the classroom, setting higher standards and expecting students and parents to be full partners in this effort.

Third, no one should graduate from school without the specific skills needed by today’s employers. Not everyone is going to benefit from a traditional four-year college degree. But more career and technical education, on-the-job training or community college programs could produce a more highly skilled work force.

These investments have the potential to increase opportunity, economic growth, and our competitiveness with other countries. Will we make the needed changes?”

For more on opportunity in America, go to the Future of Children volume on the topic.

Categories: Uncategorized