The Opportunity Dodge

This piece originally ran in The American Prospect.

We think of America as the land of opportunity, but the United States actually has low rates of upward mobility relative to other advanced nations, and there has been no improvement in decades. Creating more opportunity is therefore a worthy goal. However, when the goal of more opportunity is offered instead of addressing income inequality, it’s a dodge and an empty promise—because opportunity does not thrive amid great inequalities.

It is important to distinguish between opportunity (or mobility) and income inequality. Concerns about mobility relate to strengthening the chances that children who grow up with relatively low incomes will attain middle-class or higher incomes in their adulthood. To address income inequality, on the other hand, is to focus on whether low- and middle-income households improve their share of the economic growth generated in the next two decades. Rising inequality is best illustrated by the fact that while the top 1 percent only received 9 percent of household income in 1979, this group gained either 38 percent (using the CBO’s comprehensive measure) or 60 percent (using tax data on market-based incomes) of the income growth between 1979 and 2007. That is, the top 1 percent received four to six times its expected share of all the income growth.

The opportunity dodge is popular with centrist and conservative politicians. Conservatives, for the most part, consider income outcomes to be the result of meritocracy. “I don’t care about income inequality per se; I care about opportunity inequality,” Arthur Brooks, head of the American Enterprise Institute recently said. “I want everybody to have a chance to be mobile, to rise, for everybody to have a chance to earn success.” Likewise, Jeb Bush’s highly touted speech to the Economic Club of Detroit keyed in on “the opportunity gap.” Left unsaid is that groups losing out from income inequality are judged to have not exerted sufficient effort, to have inadequate skills, or to have pursued counterproductive behaviors (such as not getting married).

Centrist Democrats sometimes address opportunity instead of income inequality to avoid confronting the top 1 percent’s capture of the lion’s share of income growth. After all, addressing runaway executive pay and a runaway financial sector—the main causes of the top 1 percent’s income gains—smacks of redistribution; and besides, those folks are their donor base. Talking about opportunity also allows a politician to avoid confronting ongoing wage suppression and the imbalance of bargaining power that has led to stagnant wages for college graduates and non-college graduates alike over the last dozen years. As Representative Scott Peters of the House New Democrat Coalition recently said, “To the extent that Republicans beat up on workers and Democrats beat up on employers—I’m not sure that offers voters much of a vision.”

Improved early-childhood education or access to college—the opportunity agenda—will enhance the upward mobility of today’s children (especially if coupled with policies that improve the availability of good jobs), and help them prosper as adults. However, it will do nothing to enable today’s families to share in economic growth. That’s what makes it a “dodge” to pursue opportunity but ignore income inequality: It is at best changing the subject and, in Larry Summers’s characterization, it is evading the tougher issue of who has bargaining power in the economy.

The opportunity dodgers also ignore that income inequality and intergenerational mobility are closely linked. The so-called Great Gatsby Curve comparing opportunity with equality shows that mobility is less in countries with the greatest inequality. So we will not be able to foster more opportunity and mobility without also addressing income inequality. Policies to increase mobility usually focus on more and better education, including starting earlier (quality early-childhood education) and extending education through community college or a four-year degree. Yet one of the most robust and long-standing social science research findings is that family background—the circumstances in which children grow up—greatly shapes educational advancement. So, promoting education solutions to mobility without addressing income inequality is ultimately playing pretend. We can’t substantially change opportunity without changing the actual lived circumstances of disadvantaged and working-class youth.

Success in school is not as easy for someone facing poverty, especially the concentrated poverty that racial segregation produces. These are children who frequently change schools due to poor housing; have little help with homework; have few role models of success; have more exposure to lead and asbestos; have untreated vision, ear, dental, or other health problems; have parents with the greatest stress; and live in a chaotic and frequently unsafe environment. For them, opportunity is not enough unless the foundations of success are established.

Acknowledging that income inequality and poverty greatly affect schooling success means we need to improve the circumstances of poor children’s lives by providing stable, adequate housing and healthy, safe environments. Decent income for their parents is essential. If we fail to improve these circumstances, promoting mobility and opportunity through more and better education is a false promise and is simply posturing.

Last, it is important to recognize that some people are always going to end up on the bottom and middle rungs since—except in Lake Wobegon—somebody has to be below average. Economic policy must also be concerned that low- and moderate-income families have decent incomes, health care, and retirement. The opportunity dodgers are really saying they do not care how low- and middle-income families actually live.


  • Allen Shaw

    “We think of America as the land of opportunity,
    but the United States actually has low rates of upward mobility relative to
    other advanced nations, and there has been no improvement in decades.”

    Other than words spoken by previous individuals there is not any real reason that the upward mobility should be any different in this nation than any other. In fact the past history would actually indicate a problem, which should have been foreseen by our great thinkers, is coming to be an issue.

    The use of slave labor for the first part of the formation of this nation
    introduced a large portion of individual whose purpose was labor “without
    complaint about labor”. There were 3,953,761 slaves in 1860, in 2010
    there were 38,929,319 Blacks living in this nation. The majority of these individuals were confined to the south until the civil right movement

    and without any doubt denied any basic knowledge that could be denied them and kept in what today would be considered unacceptable living conditions.

    They were than encouraged to leave the south in large numbers to seek employment in the northern sections of the nation and the final dying days of the archaic automobile industry. While at the same time contracts were being prepared to establish new modern automobile plants in the south.

    The farm belt where the majority of White Europeans had moved was subject to the introduction of large modern farm equipment which wiped out the demand for untold numbers of White farmers. Land was purchased and leveled and the sizes of farms increased and profits went to fewer owners.

    The introduction of helicopters, jeeps and other overland vehicles also reduced the need for employees to maintain the cattle and sheep herds.

    The modernization of the means of butchering, haying and all other basic labor have impacted the need for low and middle income workers. The need for supervisors has also been impacted, because of modernization.

    The advances in production which creates more products with less labor have had a massive effect on the demand for labor.

    Modern methods, in the production of oil, have also reduced the need for labor. How many other labor fields have been impacted by the modernization of production?

    The heavy influx of northern Europeans farm personnel added to the mass of individuals who were “labor oriented”. It was only after 1965 or there about that any thought was given to demanding any mental requirements for entering this nation.

    The U.S. population in 1900 was 76 million. In 1950, it rose to 152 million; by 2000 it had reached 282 million.

    Therefore it is highly likely that the United States has a far larger mass of low to middle mentally capable citizens, while the European nations that are being compared have had a large portion of their low and meddle, mental population drained over the last 125 years.

    The additional separation of races and ethnic groups in this nation has made it difficult for Blacks to be integrated into the main social groups (see the population of many western states). This separation gives many of the Whites an abnormal negative view of Blacks and affects their interest in helping solve the problem.

    Adding to this is the current new religious fever which seems to blind people to the real Christian values and takes them back to the Old testament to seek values which have been found to be unsatisfactory to
    Jesus’s spoken word is causing a new blockage of assistance to individuals (see number of states that refuse to have addition Medicare for their citizens no empathy for burdening the poor with unwanted children anti-abortion).

    The United States has had a remarkable period in history by not being involved in other nation’s affairs prior to WW 1 and WW II. Today we are using less manpower in the armed forces and more sophisticated weapons, which use less labor, thus an addition source of employment for the low and middle income individuals has been cut off.

    While complaining about NAFTA and the results of work being removed to other nations, we cannot justify paying higher wages for labor that can be accomplished in some other nation. This has the effect of reducing the requirements for low and middle income individuals. The means of
    transportation of massive amounts of material, the lack of requirements for raw material to be transported to this nation and many other improvements have leveled the playing field and made it impossible for a continuation of the “Made in America Model”.

    In short, until such time as the wages in the United States become equal to the wages of other nations plus the cost of transportation of goods to and from such nations, the low and middle income individual in this nation is going to be in excess.

    It seems as though the great thinkers of this nation would look at the realities facing this nation and start to produce some clear thinking about solutions that are truly workable instead of writing glorious articles about fairness, which is never a part of any real solution!

    Finally, perhaps when making the comparison of other nations the thought that most European nations have reduced their population and have followed a less restrictive view on social issues may have some effect on this conversation. In addition, millions of individuals have been killed in wars outside of this nation, while our problem only seems to be the individual killing of each other and the unusual killings by the police. Also we seem to be healthy and can produce more than one for one child.

  • Allen Shaw

    I forgot to mention in my recent comment the addition of women to the work force in the past 40 years has increased the competition that men previously had for many positions. For instances it is not unusual to see women truck drivers and heavy equipment operators because the improvements in the equipment requires certain skills that women possess that do not come easy to men.

  • brown7228

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    On Political Contributions

    Private or corporate owned
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