The Loss of Upward Mobility in the U.S.

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Economic mobility is becoming a more prominent issue in the 2012 Republican presidential race, and will likely be widely discussed in the general election. The GOP’s remaining top-tier candidates — Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich — have all sounded the alarm about American decline, promising to restore the “American Dream” and make the pursuit of happiness seem like more of a worthwhile endeavor (as Romney as consistently hammered on about recently). But what’s shocking is that rather than focusing on the American Dream these days, politicians and academics seem to be talking more about the European Dream.

The New York Times reported today on the lack of upward mobility in the U.S., specifically citing comments made by presidential hopeful Santorum that movement “up into the middle income is actually greater … in Europe, than it is in America.” National Review, a conservative weekly, and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) have made similar remarks about economic opportunity in Europe.

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The piece mirrors TIME’s cover story from Nov. 14 by Rana Foroohar, “What Ever Happened to Upward Mobility?”, and includes many of the same stats on economic opportunity (or lack thereof) in various Western industrialized nations. Both pieces cite numbers from the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Economic Mobility Project and other studies that found that 42% of American men with fathers who were in the bottom fifth of the earning curve stay there. Meanwhile, only a quarter of Danes and Swedes and 30% of Britons born into the lower-income bracket will die in that same bracket.

The difference now is that Republican presidential candidates are beginning to talk about mobility more than they did two months ago. Rather than discussing income inequality, which the ultra-liberal Occupy movement would argue is the same issue, the candidates are hitting on a much more patriotic theme, arguing that the Obama administration is restricting the idea of the American Dream through taxes and excessive government regulation.

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Most studies back up the idea that the U.S. has lost the upper hand for upward mobility to Europe and Canada over the last several decades. According to the Times story, 16% of Canadian men raised in the bottom tenth percentile of incomes were still there as adults. In the U.S., 22% remained in the bottom tenth.

How can the American Dream be restored, and how can the U.S. once again lead the world in terms of the genuine possibility for upward mobility? That’ll be debated heatedly throughout this election year, and likely for quite some time to come while we recover from the Great Recession.