It’s Hard to Make It in America | Foreign Affairs
Of course, there is no perfect way to measure opportunities. The best method devised thus far is to look at outcomes: college completion, gainful employment, and sufficient income. If the average outcome for one group far outpaces that for another, social scientists conclude that the first group had greater opportunities. Comparing outcomes is not foolproof, as differences in outcomes can result from differences in effort. But a person’s effort is itself shaped by the circumstances he or she encounters.
To assess equality of opportunity among people from different family backgrounds, the measure of outcome that social scientists look at is relative intergenerational mobility — a person’s position on the income ladder relative to his or her parents’ position. Social scientists don’t have as much information as they would like about the extent of relative intergenerational mobility, its movement over time, and its causes. The data requirements are stiff; analysts need a survey that collects information about citizens’ incomes and other aspects of their life circumstances, then does the same for their children, and for their children’s children, and so on. The best assessment of this type in the United States, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, has been around only since the late 1960s.
Even so, there is general consensus among social scientists on a few basic points. First, an American born into a family in the bottom fifth of incomes between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s has roughly a 30 percent chance of reaching the middle fifth or higher in adulthood, whereas an American born into the top fifth has an 80 percent chance of ending up in the middle fifth or higher. (In a society with perfectly equal opportunity, every person would have the same chance — 20 percent — of landing on each of the five rungs of the income ladder and a 60 percent chance of landing on the middle rung or a higher one.) This discrepancy means that there is considerable inequality of opportunity among Americans from different family backgrounds.
Second, inequality of opportunity has increased in recent decades. The data do not permit airtight conclusions. Still, available compilations of test scores, years of schooling completed, occupations, and incomes of parents and their children strongly suggest that the opportunity gap, which was narrowing until the 1970s, is now widening.
Third, in a sharp reversal of historical trends, there is now less equality of opportunity in the United States than in most other wealthy democratic nations. Data exist for ten of the United States’ peer countries (rich long-standing democracies). The United States has less relative intergenerational mobility than eight of them; Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom all do better. The United States is on par with France and Italy.
So how did the United States get here? Why did it falter where other nations have not? And how can it fix the problem? On the right, a standard proposal is to strengthen families. On the left, a recent favorite is to reduce income inequality. And everyone supports improving education. To know which proposals would work best, it helps to understand the roots of the new opportunity gap.