Writing at The Daily Beast, the daughter of the 2008 GOP presidential candidate tours the Occupy Wall Street REI-ville in Manhattan and writes about the end of opportunity in these United States:
The anger from Occupy Wall Street is coming from this simple fact: America no longer seems to be a place where you can work your way up, from rags to riches, from lower class to middle class to upper class. If people aren’t given a fair shot, how can they work to achieve their dreams?
To her credit, Meghan McCain is not laying claim to any sort of fellowship with the Tom Joads of Zuccotti Park:
I’m the daughter of one of the most long-standing senators in politics and I have been given every opportunity that anyone could possibly dream of. I was given those opportunities as a result of the hard work from both sides of my family. What struck me more than anything is that for the first time possibly in history, people aren’t being given the same opportunities that my parents and grandparents had.
Is McCain right that the U.S. has shelved upward mobility? In a word, no. Here's a summary of a report on economic mobility from the Pew Center's "Economic Mobility Project."
We examine trends in U.S. intragenerational income mobility over the past two decades. Specifically, we focus on how the economic positions of 25- to 44-year-olds change over a decade relative to one another, as well as in absolute terms (whether they are doing better or worse at the end of the decade than they were at the start). In addition, we compare intragenerational mobility rates over two periods, 1984 to 1994 and 1994 to 2004.
We find that mobility rates have not changed very much between these two time periods. This finding is somewhat surprising given the changes in the economy in the 1980s and 1990s, such as the ongoing shift from manufacturing to service-sector jobs, rising immigrant populations, and extended periods of growth.
Emphasis added. This study uses data that predates the current recession but that sort of time lag is typical of such studies, which sift through the Panel Survey of Income Dynamics (PSID), a database of households and individuals who are tracked over time. However bad the current economy has been for the past few years, there is no reason to think that we have entered a brave new world in which the basic trends of the past many decades will stop cold in their tracks. From the summary again:
We find that 60.4 percent of all 25- to 44-year-olds moved up or down income quintiles relative to their peers between 1984 and 1994, and 60.5 percent did so between 1994 and 2004. Absolute mobility rates have also been fairly stable over time. Between 1984 and 1994, 61.1 percent of individuals experienced income changes that moved them across their 1984 income quintile boundaries; between 1994 and 2004, absolute income mobility was 62.6 percent.
You might complain that those rates of relative and absolute mobility are not good enough, but you can't argue that they are smaller than they used to be.
And however daunting a persistent 9 percent unemployment rate is, other Pew research should provide longer-range comfort to both McCain and the folks she talked with in New York. Here's a chart that ought to make everybody feel pretty damn good about where they are vis a vis their parents:
"Adults who were children in 1968," write the Pew researchers, "tend to have more income than did their parents' generation at the same age." Stunningly, a full 43 percent of youngish adults whose parents were in the top 20 percent of income are doing better than mom and pop were at the same age.
Pew groups people into the four categories below and then plots the odds based on your parents' income that an individual from a given category will move up or down an income quintile. If your parents' income was in the lowest 20 percent (bottom quintile), you've got a 58 percent chance of being "upwardly mobile," or earning a higher income than they did and bumping up a quintile or two.
The researchers stress that "one-third of Americans are downwardly mobile" (emphasis in original), but that's not necessarly a bad thing. For instance, it's highly likely that Meghan McCain will not do quite as well as her parents and grandparents did, but even she seems OK with this, given her predecessors' dedication to work. As it happens, it's precisely people in her situation - the kids of very rich people - who are most likely to experience a drop in income and income quintile compared to their parents' situation (they have a 57 percent chance of going down).
That sort of decline is no cause for alarm. Indeed, it's the price they must pay for the rest of us to be mobile.