Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins -- Five myths about our land of opportunity

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By Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins
Sunday, November 1, 2009

Americans have always believed that their country is unique in providing the opportunity to get ahead. Just combine hard work with a bit of talent and you'll climb the ladder -- or so we've told ourselves for generations. But rising unemployment and financial turmoil are puncturing that self-image. The reality of this "land of opportunity" is considerably more complex than the myths would suggest:

1. Americans enjoy more economic opportunity than people in other countries.

Actually, some other advanced economies offer more opportunity than ours does. For example, recent research shows that in the Nordic countries and in the United Kingdom, children born into a lower-income family have a greater chance than those in the United States of forming a substantially higher-income family by the time they're adults.

If you are born into a middle-class family in the United States, you have a roughly even chance of moving up or down the ladder by the time you are an adult. But the story for low-income Americans is quite different; going from rags to riches in a generation is rare. Instead, if you are born poor, you are likely to stay that way. Only 35 percent of children in a family in the bottom fifth of the income scale will achieve middle-class status or better by the time they are adults; in contrast, 76 percent of children from the top fifth will be middle-class or higher as adults.

The United States is exceptional, however, in the opportunity it offers to immigrants, who tend to do comparatively well here. Their wages are much higher than what they might have earned in their home countries. And even if their pay is initially low by American standards, their children advance quite rapidly.

2. In the United States, each generation does better than the past one.

As a result of economic growth, each generation can usually count on having a higher income, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than the previous one. For example, men born in the 1960s were earning more in the 1990s than their fathers' generation did at a similar age, and their families' incomes were higher as well. But that kind of steady progress appears to have stalled. Today, men in their 30s earn 12 percent less than the previous generation did at the same age.

The main reason today's families have modestly higher overall income than prior generations is simple: More members of the household are working. Women have joined the labor force in a big way, and their earnings have increased as well. But with so many families now having two earners, continued progress along this path will be difficult unless wages for both men and women rise more quickly.

3. Immigrant workers and the offshoring of jobs drive poverty and inequality in the United States.

Although immigration and trade are often blamed, a more important reason for our lack of progress against poverty and our growing inequality is a dramatic change in American family life. Almost 30 percent of children now live in single-parent families, up from 12 percent in 1968. Since poverty rates in single-parent households are roughly five times as high as in two-parent households, this shift has helped keep the poverty rate up; it climbed to 13.2 percent last year. If we had the same fraction of single-parent families today as we had in 1970, the child poverty rate would probably be about 30 percent lower than it is today.

Among women under age 30, more than half of all births now occur outside marriage, driving up poverty and leading to more intellectual, emotional and social problems among children.

In addition, we have seen a growing tendency among well-educated men and women to marry each other, exacerbating income disparities. If we add to these family changes the fact that wages for low-skilled workers have stagnated or declined in recent decades, we can explain most of the increase in poverty and much of the increase in the income gap as well.

4. If we want to increase opportunities for children, we should give their families more income.

Of course money is a factor in upward mobility, but it isn't the only one; it may not even be the most important. Our research shows that if you want to avoid poverty and join the middle class in the United States, you need to complete high school (at a minimum), work full time and marry before you have children. If you do all three, your chances of being poor fall from 12 percent to 2 percent, and your chances of joining the middle class or above rise from 56 to 74 percent. (We define middle class as having an income of at least $50,000 a year for a family of three.)

Many American families need supplements to their incomes in the form of food stamps, affordable housing and welfare payments. But such aid should not be given unconditionally. First, the public is concerned that unconditional assistance will end up supporting those who are not trying to help themselves. Second, new research in economics and psychology has shown that individuals frequently behave in ways that undermine their long-term welfare and can benefit from a government nudge in the right direction.

And third, policies with strings attached have had considerable success. One example is the 1996 welfare reform law, which required most adult recipients to get jobs, and dramatically increased employment and lowered overall child poverty. In the midst of a recession, we can't expect everyone to work. But social policies will be more successful if they encourage people to do things that bring longer-term success.

5. We can fund new programs to boost opportunity by cutting waste and abuse in the federal budget.

Can we cut enough ineffective programs or impose enough new taxes to put better teachers in classrooms, expand child-care assistance for working families and provide more financial aid to disadvantaged students while reducing projected deficits? The answer is a resounding no. Certainly, we should eliminate fraud, waste and abuse; raise new revenues; and scrub the budget for additional savings. But these alone won't get the job done. Just three rapidly growing programs -- Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid -- along with interest on the debt threaten to crowd out all other spending in a few decades.

So we also need to revise the contract between the generations in a way that gradually reallocates resources from the more affluent elderly to struggling younger families and their children. Such a shift would not only help create more opportunity, it would improve the productivity of the next generation, making its members better able to contribute to the costs of retirement -- including their own.

Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins are co-directors of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution and the co-authors of "Creating an Opportunity Society."


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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