Here’s What Numbers Don’t Say About Social Mobility

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One of the supporting columns of the “American Dream” is undoubtedly that of social mobility; the idea that an individual can work hard, get an education, handle their finances well, and eventually work their way up in the world to a more financially stable and happier life. That they can start out an immigrant with little to no money, and almost no English-speaking ability, but send their child to college. Of course, social mobility isn’t just about money, and it’s not just about education, though education is readily listed by most as the stepping stone out of poverty.

Perhaps because of economic instability and struggling job markets, a CNN Money poll conducted by ORC International in June of 2014 showed six out of 10 individuals saying they believe it was impossible to reach the American dream, particularly those between the ages of 18 and 34 who were job searching in the heart of the Great Recession and its fallout. 63% said that they didn’t believe children would be better off than parents either. This bad news is somewhat tempered by the Gallup poll in may that showed an improving perception of standards of living, with the index reaching 47 in May, the highest since 2008.

The perception of standard of living may not be merely a perception, according to Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research organization. It lists five factors, including prison populations, welfare’s effect on poverty, state-led efforts for reform, health improvements in youth, and political effort as evidence of “reasons to be cheerful about social mobility this holiday season.” Not to be an unreformed Grinch or pre-ghost Scrooge, but unfortunately, while Brookings is generally a strong source for data analysis, this particular argument is a little bit lackluster. Some of its claims are backed up by strong evidence, but in particular the political and state-led efforts toward social mobility are weak arguments — likely added to flesh out a three-part list post to include five points. First though, let’s look at some of the more inspiring statistics and what it means for social mobility and opportunity in America — is the American dream resurrected after all? What are these statistics really showing? According to Brookings, taking its data from the Bureau of Justice National Prisoner Statistics Program (1978-2013), prison populations — especially young prisoners — have decreased. Those under the age of 18 in state and federal prisons have seen a decrease, especially in state prisons, as shown below.


Given the disproportionate number of black Americans who are incarcerated, this has a positive connotation for African Americans in particular, according to Brookings. That said, Brookings admits that decreased incarceration is possibly an “insufficient step in terms of removing barriers to upward mobility,” and that is exactly the case. Just because fewer men and women are going to prison in America doesn’t mean that they’re finding pathways to education and opportunity. Given the sentencing reforms taken on by Attorney General Eric Holder, the number of prisoners in America is likely to continue to decrease in coming years — however while this leaves the door open for other pathways barred by a prison sentence, it doesn’t mean those pathways are available necessarily. Just because drug possession may no longer get the same sentence, doesn’t make college education more affordable, or inner-city schools safer.

Welfare is Brookings next topic of discussion, pointing out that the current available assistance programs are having a positive effect on poverty levels, based on the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which shows a decrease in child and elderly poverty rates. This is absolutely a positive sign for social mobility; a more financially secure upbringing offers a number of major advantages. Similarly, improved health of children would be a good step toward better futures. Unfortunately, the good news on that front is rather limited, restricted to two to five year-olds where obesity rates have dropped 40%, while the rest of childhood rates have remained high. One of the really problematic items on the list is political mobility. The suggestion that “politicians are waking up to the need to act in order to promote social mobility” is not a predictor of what political activity will actually take place. If anything has been shown this last year, political intentions can’t always overcome gridlock, and sometimes the best intentions backfire. Which is why so many states have taken on efforts that couldn’t be accomplished at the national congressional level — though ironically Congress did pass funding for said state initiatives. Some of these have indeed done a great deal to improve mobility and lives of many Americans; they have been designed to help build better conditions for children growing up, and to help women obtain contraceptives to better plan pregnancies in some states.

Ultimately Brookings was an optimist and that never hurts, especially around Thanksgiving, as Brookings points out. But only some of the data strongly backs up optimism; as such, a reality check was in order.

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