Surprise: Economic Mobility is Alive and Well in America!


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"You can be concerned that there's not enough [economic] mobility or enough opportunity, but you don't have to also believe that things are getting worse."

So says Scott Winship of the centrist Brookings Institution.

Despite having a wealth of empirical evidence on his side, it's a lonely position. Researchers, writers, and politicians on the political right (think Charles Murray in his new book Coming Apart and former GOP Sen. Rick Santorum) and on the left (Timothy Noah in The Great Divergence and President Barack Obama) are convinced that economic mobility is shrinking.

In a series of provocative essays in a wide array of outlets, Winship demonstrates that while income inequality may indeed be growing (especially at the top end of things), mobility is not declining. As he wrote earlier this year in an article at National Review,

Using…two National Longitudinal Survey data sets, I can compare children born between 1962 and 1964 to children born between 1980 and 1982, observing their parents' incomes when they were 14 to 16 and their own incomes twelve years later when they were 26 to 28.

In contrast to [President Obama's and other's claims] of declining mobility, I found that upward mobility from poverty to the middle class rose from 51 percent to 57 percent between the early-'60s cohorts and the early-'80s ones. Rather than assert that mobility has increased, I want to simply say—at this stage of my research (which is ongoing)—that it has not declined.

If I include households that reported negative or no income, the rise in upward mobility I find is only from 51 percent to 53 percent, which is not a statistically meaningful increase. But the data provide absolutely no evidence that economic mobility declined, whereas the president said it had fallen by ten percentage points.

Winship sat down with Reason's Nick Gillespie to talk about why people mistake growth in income inequality for decreases in economic mobility and how mobility might be increased from where it's been for the past 40 or 50 years.

About 5.28 minutes.

Produced by Anthony L. Fisher; camera by Jim Epstein and Meredith Bragg.

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