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The Upward Mobility Myth

Maybe we don't all have the same opportunities.


According to our founding document and our national myth, we are all created equal and then it's up to us. Inequality in material things is mitigated in two ways: first, by equal opportunity at the start, and, second, by full civil equality despite material differences. We don't claim to have achieved all this, but these are our national goals and we are always moving toward them.

The 20th century added two somewhat vaguer elements to the myth. One is that even material inequality will be limited, at the bottom end, by social guarantees against absolute deprivation or vertiginous plunges. Another is that prosperity will gradually make us all more equal even in the material sense.

Three of the nation's top newspapers have been examining the national myth recently. The Wall Street Journal has looked at social mobility. In recent decades, financial inequality has been increasing, not shrinking. That didn't matter, many said, because studies show a constant shuffling of the deck.

Where you are today says little about where you might be tomorrow and even less about where your offspring will be in 25 years.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 08, 2005 Home Edition California Part B Page 13 Editorial Pages Desk 0 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Upward mobility -- A Commentary column on Sunday about financial inequality referred to a anecdote in the Wall Street Journal about crashing the charity ball society of Palm Springs. The city was Palm Beach.

But it turns out these studies were flawed. Where you are is the best predictor of where your children will be. And immobility over generations is what congeals financial differences into old-fashioned, European-style social class.

The Journal series included a wonderful story, straight out of Trollope, about a vulgar arriviste trying to crash the absurd charity ball society of Palm Springs.

Less fun, but more telling, was a New York Times piece comparing three victims of heart attacks. The series has been especially good at capturing the subtle ways in which privilege manifests itself and gets transmitted over generations. It's not just money. It's not just IQ or education or blue blood or even good values. It's how all these combine into knowing which hospital to ask for when the ambulance arrives.

The Los Angeles Times takes over with a scary look at downward mobility. The national myth imagines the ascent from poverty to the middle class as a ratchet. But sliding out of middle-class prosperity is getting easier every day.

You can do it by losing your job, as the result of an accident or other health emergency, by squandering your savings. Globalization and technology may make everyone better off on average (I believe they do), but they land like a boulder on individuals who lose their jobs to foreigners and machines. Healthcare becomes more costly and employers get stingier about paying for it. And President Bush wants to make Social Security more of an opportunity to do well and less of a guarantee against doing disastrously. In short, if insurance means shifting risks from individuals to society, what has been going on lately is the opposite: shifting risks from society back onto the individual.

Of the many questions raised by all this, the most pressing is: What happened to the Washington Post? If the Post wants in on the discussion, there are still rich veins to mine. For example, it might reexamine the role of civil equality as a consolation prize for economic inequality.

This conceit seems to be eroding in two ways. First, money is playing an ever-larger role in the mechanics of democracy. Second, whole areas of life that were part of everyday democracy have fallen to the empire of money.

People increasingly go to schools with people of their own class, live in class-sifted neighborhoods, hold their Fourth of July picnics in their own backyards rather than the public park.

Meanwhile, despite months of superb reporting by three great newspapers, the question of how closely our national reality resembles our national myth remains open.

Does it matter whether your place in life is determined by your IQ or your schooling or your parents' wallets -- all of which are beyond your control? As we learn more about the human mind, even qualities such as self-discipline seem to be a matter of genes, not grit.

The problem, in short, may not be that reality is receding from the national myth. The problem may be the myth.

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