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wealth and inequality

In The New York Times’ series on inequality in America, Columbia professor and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz recently argued that measurable social mobility in America is incongruent with the often ascribed “land of opportunity” label. Stiglitz did reference data from a reputable source (The Brookings Institution) to draw his conclusions, but his interpretation of said data is perplexing.

According to Stiglitz, “only 58 percent of Americans born into the bottom fifth of income earners move out of that category, and just 6 percent born into the bottom fifth move into the top.”

The word “only” in that statement is an interesting rhetorical choice. I don’t know exactly what percentage of America’s poorest children the professor thinks should be moving out of the untouchable caste, but 58% seems pretty good. And while 6% seems rather paltry when I pay sales tax on a Burger King Whopper, the fact that 6 out of 100 of the most indigent kids in America can go from dirt poor to filthy rich sounds almost too good to be true.

This is certainly all a matter of perspective, right? Maybe not.

Stiglitz is obviously concerned with the 42% of American children who are quite literally stuck in a cycle of poverty, and this is noble. No decent non-Republican human being would argue that these 42% are undeserving of assistance just because others were able to succeed. However, Stiglitz completely ignored the flip-side to upward mobility in America: downward mobility. Maybe he simply overlooked it—or maybe, more likely, he dismissed it because the facts don’t support his thesis.

I would never have imagined that so many of America’s poorest were able to climb at least one rung of the social ladder. The revelation that so many could (whether thanks to government assistance or despite government dependency) made me wonder about my preconceptions about the richest Americans. Before reading the Stiglitz article, I always thought it was a general rule that the poor got poorer and the rich got richer, generationally speaking anyway. Since Stiglitz made no mention of what happens to kids born to the richest parents, I went to the source.

The Brookings report indicated that 61% of children born into families at the top income quintile FALL into a lesser bracket. That’s right “only” 39% of the richest kids stay the richest kids. Relatively speaking, this means that if you were solely concerned with social mobility, you would be statistically better off being born into one of the poorest families (58% chance of moving up) than being born into one of the richest families (61% chance of moving down).

I don’t deny that more equality of opportunity in this country is needed in order to ensure that everyone has the best possible chance to reach the socio-economic status they desire. I am a strong advocate for government assistance, public education, and universal health care. However, people like Joseph Stiglitz, who support similar agendas for helping the poor, are doing themselves and the progressive cause a disservice when they try to shape a debate with deceptively selective data and phrases like “only 58%.”

(Editors note: The following post was originally published at The McLean Parlor)

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