The social mobility myth

I was pointed to this really interesting post by my favorite conservative (apostate) David Frum, by Jon Chait.  What’s so interesting about Frum, and the reason he’s not particularly welcome on the right these days, is that he actually cares about things like child poverty.  One of the most pernicious myths on the right is the myth of the uniqueness of American social mobility– the idea that anybody can make it here through hard work (and conversely, that slackers will fall to the bottom).  As any observer of Paris Hilton knows, the best way to be rich is to be born rich, regardless of inborn characteristics.  When it comes to actually being able to work yourself up to a better socio-economic strata, the US falls far behind many nations that conservatives would label “socialist,” e.g., Denmark, Norway, and our neighbors to the North.  In fact, we’re only 8th of 9 countries surveyed.  Here’s the graph:

relative mobility international Losing the Fight Against Child Poverty

Frum, hanging on as hard as he can to his conservatism concludes that he’ll still take the trade-off in exchange for America’s “freedom and individualism.”  You know, I’ve actually been to several of these countries ahead of us, and they’re not exactly under the yoke of conformist tyranny.  It’s also easy for Frum to say, as someone in the higher strata in America (though, interestingly, Canadian by birth).  I strongly suspect that most people born poor, but with ambition, would be much more inclined towards the social mobility of the Scandinavian nations that the greater “freedom and individualism” to go with their poverty in America.

Nonetheless, kudos to Frum for not shying away from this fact and for frequently taking on the conservative perpetrators of this myth.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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