An op-ed by Isabell Sawhill and Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution skewers a number of articles of faith about opportunity in the United States held by Democrats and Republicans alike. The quintet of popular misconceptions are:
- Americans enjoy more economic opportunity than people in other countries. In this country if you’re poor you’re likely to stay that way, if you’re rich you’re likely to stay that way, and if you’re in the middle you can go up, go down, or stay in the same place with about equal odds. The U. S. is more congenial for immigrants than most European countries, however.
- In the United States, each generation does better than the past. This all depends on how you measure things but what the statistics really support is that many middle income American families have kept a tenuous foothold on what we think of as a middle income lifestyle by working more hours outside the home. Obviously, there are limits to that as a strategy and we’ve probably reached them.
- Immigrant workers and the offshoring of jobs drive poverty and inequality in the United States. More important is the increase in the number of single parent homes.
- If we want to increase opportunities for children, we should give their families more income. Giving people money won’t do the trick:
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 can fund new programs to boost opportunity by cutting waste and abuse in the federal budget. This is flat out false. There is no budget item for waste, fraud, and abuse and although all undoubtedly exist there’s little reason to believe that the savings we’ll realize by eliminating them will be less than the cost of uncovering them. That doesn’t mean we should abandon efforts to eliminate waste, fraud, or abuse. It means it will take much, much more to fund our programs. Indeed, there’s no realistically foreseeable level of growth or increased level of taxation that will enable us to pay for the programs we’ve already got.
No comfortable nostrum will save us from the hole we’ve been digging for ourselves over the period of the last forty years. In my view there’s a desperate need to reevaluate the role of government, what services government provides, and how those services are provided. Ideological approaches, regardless of the ideology, will only make things worse.
James Joyner picks up on the same op-ed and remarks:
The poor, by and large, are those who have made bad decisions: Dropping out of school, having children out of wedlock, and been satisfied with government supported subsistence living. Their children, in turn, are trapped in the same pattern of behavior by being surrounded by a culture that sees these things as the norm and actively discourages responsible behavior.
While I agree with this broadly I think the reality is somewhat more complex. It’s the incentives.
Many of the poor live in nearly self-contained communities and their exposure to the breadth of possibilities in the United States is really quite limited. There are places where the only lives that the kids can imagine for themselves are pimp, prostitute, hustler, professional athlete, performer, or cop. Becoming an accountant or a hospital administrator is unimagineable.