About Me

I am Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. I am also the Academic Director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, in New Bedford MA. Author of "Social Security and the Middle Class Squeeze" (Praeger, 2005) and the forthcoming "Saul Alinsky the Dilemma of Race in the Post-War City" (University of Chicago Press), my teaching and scholarship focuses on American urban history, social policy, and politics. I am presently writing a book on home ownership in modern America, entitled "Castles Made of Sand? Home Ownership and the American Dream." I live in Providence RI, where I have served on the School Board since March 2015. All opinions posted here are my own.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Social mobility: the decline of American exceptionalism

Very good overview of the issue of social mobility in the U.S. in the Times today, by the always thoughtful Jason DeParle. 

For a graphic comparing social mobility in the U.S. and Denmark, go here (tried to reproduce it here, but couldn't make it fit).

The piece is quite balanced, and notes that while arguments can be made for the moral, political and economic irrelevancy of inequalities of income, data indicating a lack of social mobility constitute a much more consequential challenge for conservatives.  DeParle makes it clear that while scholars do argue over the data and their interpretation, the vast preponderance of research on mobility shows us two things:  that mobility in the U.S. is lower than most people think, and that other comparably wealthy countries are much more mobile than we are.  He doesn't note -- but I will -- another relevant fact:  Canada and most of Western Europe and Scandinavia not only have more mobility within and across generations.  The consequences of not moving up -- or of falling -- aren't nearly as dire as they are in the U.S.

The only real justification for the extraordinary inequalities of wealth that exist in the US today, is that while resources aren't distributed equally, opportunities are. But this is clearly not true, and hasn't been for quite some time. It is my sense that, barring definitive action by government at all levels, we are only at the beginning of a massive collapse of the opportunity structure in the US.  

The tragedy of this is that over the last decade we have come to a greater understanding of how inequality is reproduced across generations, particularly among the very young -- and because of this research, we also have a pretty good sense of what the most effective policy instruments might be.  But inequality generates a politics designed to protect privilege (surely this is the irony of the 'Tea Party,' as Thomas Frank argues in his new book), making it almost impossible for us to truly grapple with all of this as a nation.

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