Economic mobility critical for equalityBy Chisolm Allenlundy | 01/26/2015 11:17am
America has long taken pride in its namesake ideal, the American Dream. Indeed, our nation has been built on the backs of generations of people who believed they had a better chance of succeeding here than anywhere else. Yet the ladders of opportunity now exist in the possession of those with access to wealth building infrastructure, such as quality schools, economically healthy communities and social capital.
In contemporary debates over income distribution, Americans are often solely fixed on the issue of income inequality. To be sure, the level of inequality America currently grapples with can be detrimental to widespread growth and prosperity, but we cannot mistake it for the core of the issue. That issue, rather, is the great lack of social and economic mobility that has long plagued the home of the American Dream. Even if there were massive income discrepancies among low-, middle- and upper-class families, we would not likely be too concerned if every child had an equal chance of earning their respective income. Unfortunately in America, that is not the case, nor has it ever been.
This lack of economic mobility for all Americans remains one of the biggest looming threats to the ideal of opportunity on which America has strived to base itself. A child born into the bottom income quintile has a 42 percent chance of staying there and only a 6 percent chance of moving to the highest quintile, per a recent Brookings report on income mobility. These numbers are a far cry from the 20 percent figure we would expect to see across the board in a society truly fueled by equality of opportunity. More importantly, social mobility is highly variable across the country, with some areas enjoying high degrees and others having low levels not seen by any other developed nation. The state of Alabama, unfortunately, occupies the latter half of this spectrum. A recent Pew Research Center report suggested Alabama had lower relative mobility than every other state besides Mississippi and South Carolina, which were only one percent lower.
The twin ideals of liberty and equality for which the United States is best known are manifested in social and economic mobility. We cannot measure the level of freedom in our country simply by how much or how little the government interferes with our daily business. When being born poor reduces a child’s chances of attaining wealth to that of a coin flip, we do not know freedom.
Chisolm Allenlundy is a senior majoring in philosophy and economics. His column runs weekly.