Media Shocker: You Are Not Upwardly Mobile

Harvard academics being studied by ordinary people.

Harvard academics being studied by ordinary people.

The American media has been shocked by the latest study out from the Equality of Opportunity Project at Harvard which examines social mobility in the United States on a 40 year timeline. Stunned and confused journalists are trumpeting the finding that social mobility “hasn’t changed” in the past 40 years despite the massive economic inequality that exists today in the U$A.The news, however, is no surprise to ordinary people and those who are not lost in jingoist nostalgia for the better times of the racist, sexist, homophobic, oppressively hazy days of the 1970s.

Journalists themselves belong to a peculiar caste in American society. As the most intellectually-challenged members of the intellectual bourgeoisie, they think positively of their country in the past tense, if not the present. Things are bad now, so they must have been better 40 years ago, when the average person just had a high school diploma, and being black or female or gay meant you might as well emigrate or start protesting in the streets. This view is characteristic of their profession, which supposes to require a liberal arts degree but does not technically require actual comprehension of history, politics, or culture. Or literacy.

Some older journalists who have yet to succumb to full dementia, such as the undead who host the PBS Newshour, vaguely recall that opportunities have increased for a number of social groups in the United States since 1970. In occasional lucid moments away from the teleprompter, however, these ancient mummies are now becoming aware that a decrease in social oppression does not equate to an increase in economic egalitarianism.

Which basically amounts to a loss.

JEFFREY BROWN:I mean, first of all, is it a glass half-full or half-empty situation?  How do you look at the problem that we have today?

RAJ CHETTY:  Well, I think you shouldn’t interpret the lack of a decline in upward mobility as good news, in the sense that intergenerational mobility in the U.S., social mobility, is lower than virtually any other developed country for which we currently have data.

And so the way to think about this is that upward mobility is quite low, unfortunately, on average in the U.S., and it has remained — it’s been persistently low for the past few decades.  And so, in that sense, I think it’s still an important and urgent policy priority to focus on identifying ways of improving upward mobility.