Spinning Upward Mobility

Today (January 23, 2014), the New York Times had an article with the headline: “Upward Mobility Has Not Declined.” Reading just the headline, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. The lead paragraph states:
“The odds of moving up — or down — the income ladder in the United States have not changed appreciably in the last 20 years, according to a large new academic study that contradicts politicians in both parties who have claimed that income mobility is falling.”

But is the headline accurate? Not really. The author of the study, it appears, made the case that “Despite less discrimination of various kinds and a larger safety net than in previous decades, the odds of escaping the station of one’s birth are no higher today than they were decades ago.”

So, while mobility rates have not declined, they have not increased either. The more accurate summary would be that upward mobility has not changed in the past 2 decades.

Whether that is an issue to be debated in the political arena is a different question. That brings us back to the idea of the American Dream: than anyone who works hard and plays by the rules can move on up to a higher income and a comfortable life. The political debate centers on the extent to which upward mobility is based solely on the skills, choices,and ambition of the individual (locus of control) or the extent to which it depends on the larger social and economic forces that are outside the individual’s control.

In hard economic times, where there are insufficient jobs that pay a middle-class income, clearly, the opportunity to achieve the American Dream is negatively impacted. It is the lack of economic opportunity that makes it a political issue for some who are looking to a solution to open up new opportunities so everyone can share in the American Dream.

The data, of course, is complicated and the article refers to a variety of studies to look at the issue of upward mobility–studies that cover a greater period of time or comparison to upward mobility in other countries.

The best quote, from my perspective, was: “The facts themselves are pretty unassailable,” said David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has read the paper, which the authors will soon submit to an academic journal. “How you want to interpret them is the question.”

That is true with a lot of research studies and data. It is also a reminder to read beyond a headline, which might be catchy but also could be misleading.

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