Posts tagged with: economic mobility

Every year, the U.S. Census comes out with its report on incomes and poverty. And every year the same finding repeatedly surprises me.

As economist David Henderson says, the report “always shows that there is mobility between income categories, even in the short run, and that poverty is temporary for most people in America who experience it. Virtually all reporters ignore it.”

First, the bad news. The report reveals that during the 4-year period from 2009 to 2012, more than one out of three Americans (34.5 percent) had at least one spell of poverty lasting 2 or more months.

But the good news is that few people stayed in poverty all four years. Chronic poverty from 2009 to 2012 was relatively uncommon, with 2.7 percent of the population living in poverty all 48 months.
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socialmobility-121One of the most important important socio-economic factors in America is also one of the least talked about: social mobility.

Social mobility is the ability of an individual or family to improve (or lower) their economic status. The two main types of social mobility are intergenerational (i.e., a person is better off than their parents or grandparents) or intragenerational (i.e., income changes within a person or group’s lifetime). While there is no truly adequate gauge to measure such opportunities, we can get a fair estimate based on measurements of social mobility.

And by that measure, African Americans are fairing poorly. The Brookings Institute recently highlighted three disturbing facts about the social mobility of black Americans:
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Today at Public Discourse, I explore the dubious connection between educational attainment and upward income mobility, arguing instead that a focus on cultivating social capital would be far more effective than the conventional wisdom: “Stay out of trouble and stay in school.” Staying out of trouble is still a good idea, but staying in school — when it comes to higher education — is becoming less and less effective on its own at predicting economic improvement.

In addition, while I believe education to be desirable for itself, I do not think that one can turn a blind eye to the great cost, decreased quality, and decreased utility of higher education today. I write,
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income-inequalityWhen it comes to household income, progressives tend to start with their intuitive understanding of fairness (i.e., some people have a lot more income than others), move to the solution (redistribution of income and wealth from those who have more to those who have less), and only then to develop a metric that justifies implementing their solution: income inequality.

Because of this roundabout approach, you rarely hear progressives argue that income inequality is a problem since for them it just is an injustice — and that wealth redistribution is the primary solution. When conservatives and libertarians disagree about whether it even is an issue we should be concerned with, we are considered heart-hearted apologists for an immoral capitalist system.

The truth, however, is that we don’t care about income inequality because relative differences in income tell us nothing about fairness or the just distribution of wealth. What we care about — what everyone should care about — is whether people have adequate opportunities to increase their household’s income, and hence, improve their standard of living. While there is no truly adequate gauge to measure such opportunities, we can get a fair estimate based on measurements of social mobility.

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