Rags to Rags, Riches to Riches
Rags to Rags, Riches to Riches
Hey, guess what: the social class into which you are born matters a lot when it comes to where you stand on the American socioeconomic ladder. It matters more in the United States, the supposed land of upward mobility, than it does in Europe. The American Dream of "rags to riches" is less livable in America than it is in the aristocratic Old World that America rejected when its founding document proclaimed that "All Men Are Created Equal."
If you don't believe me, check out the front page of the capitalist Wall Street Journal two weeks ago. In an article titled "As Rich-Poor Gap Widens in the U.S., Class Mobility Stalls: Those on Bottom Rung Enjoy Better Odds in Europe" (May 13th), Journal reporter David Wessel notes that recent scholarship does NOT bear out "the notion that the US is...a meritocracy where smarts and ambition matter more than parenthood and class." In reality, Wessel finds, the odds that a child born into poverty will climb into the middle or upper class are slighter in the U.S. than they are in "class bound Europe." According to the latest and best research, the Journal reports, the U.S. and its junior partner England are "the least mobile societies" among the world's "rich countries." France and Germany "are somewhat more mobile than the U.S.; Canada and the Nordic countries are much more so."
These are interesting findings on the front page of the world's leading business class newssheet, whose editors believe that evil social-democratic and regulatory policies mire European economies and societies static "sclerosis."
Two days after Wessel's article, the New York Times noted that mobility up from poverty is less common in the U.S. than in Britain, France, Canada and "some Scandinavian countries." The best the Times could say about America was that American upward mobility is still "not as low as in developing countries like Brazil, where escape from poverty is so difficult that the lower class is all but frozen in place" (Janny Scott and David Leonhardt, "Shadowy Lines That Still Divide," New York Times. 15 May, 2005).
Rags to Rags, Riches to Riches
How fixed is class position in the supposedly hyper-fluid "land of opportunity?" The best current research determines, the Journal reports, that "at least 45%" and "perhaps as much as 60%" of "parents' advantage" is "passed on to their children." If you go with the 60% estimate, Wessel notes, then rich peoples' inherited edge - and poor peoples' inherited disadvantage - go back as far as five generations. That happens to take us back to the end of the Civil War and the constitutional abolition of slavery.
According to Chicago Federal Reserve economist Bhashkar Mazumdor, who matched government survey data with the Social Security records of thousands of men burn during the 1960s, just 14% of American men born to fathers in the bottom tenth of the wage structure have risen to the top 30%. Conversely, just 17% of men born to fathers in the top tenth have fallen into the bottom 30th.
It gets worse, Wessel notes, when you factor in race. He cites economist Tom Hertz's finding that fully 42% of blacks born into the bottom tenth of families for income fail to escape the lowest ten percent. By contrast, just 17% of whites born into the bottom tenth stay there as adults.
It Gets Worse When You Look At Wealth
It should also be noted that the Wall Street Journal's focus only on income mobility leads it significantly understate the real degree of socioeconomic immobility in the U.S. The astonishing extent of American socioeconomic and related racial disparity becomes more fully evident when you factor in wealth. In the U.S., the most unequal nation in the industrialized world, the top 1 percent owns more than 40 percent of the wealth. The top 10 percent owns two-thirds of US wealth, leaving the rest of us - 90 percent of the population - to fight it out for one third of the nation's assets.
Things get worse, again, when you factor in race. By 1999, economist Thomas Shapiro finds, the "net worth (all assets minus all liabilities) of typical white families was $81,000 compared to $8,000 for black families" in the US. By the recessionary year of 2002, black net worth fell to seven cents on the white dollar.
Mass popular ignorance of these and other facts indicating a predetermined and immobile class-race structure holds dark ideological significance in the U.S. False perceptions of the U.S. as a special land of rampant upward socioeconomic progress encourages many of its citizens to be more tolerant than Europeans of the deepening economic inequality that results from U.S.-led corporate globalization. As Wessel describes mainstream American wisdom, "it is ok to have ever greater differences between rich and poor, as long as [your] children have a good chance of grasping the brass ring." People who accept the dominant U.S. mobility myth are more prone, Wessel notes, "to elect politicians who oppose using the muscle of government to restrain the forces of widening inequality" through such measures as an increase in the minimum wage.
Facts and Frames: The Wall Street Journal Has Not Turned Marxist
How should we understand such forthright acknowledgement, however partial, of America's relatively fixed class structure on the front page of the U.S. business class's leading press organ? Has the Wall Street Journal gone leftist? Of course not. While Wessel's story will be eagerly cited and quoted by radicals, it naturally contains little of substance on the cause of America's high class immobility. Beyond the facts of inequality and immobility, of course, there is the important issue of what framework of explanation best explains their occurrence. For radicals, the drift towards wider and increasingly fixed inequality is an inherent tendency of an essentially pathological corporation capitalism that has become dramatically less subject to egalitarian political, institutional, and ideological pressures during the last three decades. The particularly dominant and related aggressive position and role of The Corporation in the making (or un-making) of U.S. policy, politics, and culture is part (most radicals would agree) of the increasingly hierarchical and fixed nature of the American class structure.
It is taboo for the Wall Street Journal or, for that matter, the more liberal New York Times, to fully and honestly discuss how capitalism and its great Frankenstein creations - the giant corporations - work to crush equality and democracy at home and abroad. Banned from embracing the useful and accurate explanatory framework advanced by left anti-capitalists, Wessel can offer his readers no real counter to the authoritarian framework crafted by the American right to account for social inequality and other unpleasant "facts of life." In the right's disciplinarian "tough-love" world view, the poor have earned their poverty (and their children's poverty) by being lazy, selfish, state-dependent, and overly "entitlement"-oriented.
As the progressive media strategist George Lakoff tells us, facts are one thing; "framing the issues" is another. The nation's radically regressive "conservatives" and the well-funded "think-tanks" that help develop their world view have embraced powerful "issue frames" that account (most "conservatives" sincerely believe) for many of the terrible facts (e.g., poverty in American poverty and mass civilian casualties in Iraq) that drive leftists to fits of anger and despair (see George Lakoff, Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, 2004).
"Treetops" and "Grassroots"
Another reason for progressives not to be overly impressed by the Wessel's article has to do with the Journal's generally affluent readership. To understand the significant extent to which peace and justice activists can often find useful information in the establishment American press (radical intellectuals like Noam Chomsky regularly cite and quote useful, system-damning items from the corporate press), it is important to realize that dominant corporate media (falsely labeled "mainstream") crafts two different versions of U.S. policy for two different audiences. The first audience, call it (following the work of the Australian propaganda critic Alex Carey) the "grassroots," comprises the general mass of citizens whose essential role in society is to keep quiet, work hard, be entertained, and do what they're told. In rare moments when media managers feel the need to do more than just divert this sorry human "rabble" (to use Chomsky's term characterizing the business class's dominant view of most of the populace) from thinking about society or policy at all, they feed it streams of fairly-tale nonsense about Americans freedom, justice, and democracy, and "weapons of mass destruction." The leading tools of ideological population control for this audience include major spectator sports, sit-coms, reality TV shows and the proto-fascistic FOX News Network.
The second target group comprises the relevant political class of Americans from at most the upper fifth of society. Call this audience (again following Carey) the "treetops" - the people who matter and who deserve and can be trusted with something approximating the real story because their minds have been properly disciplined and flattered by the processes of higher education and professional certification. This segment includes such privileged and heavily indoctrinated persons as corporate managers, lawyers, public administrators, and (most) university professors. Since these people carry out key societal tasks of supervision, discipline, training, and indoctrination, they cannot be too thoroughly misled about current events and policy without deleterious consequences for the smooth functioning of the dominant social and political order. At the same time, information and commentary for the political class sometimes reflects a degree of reasoned debate among its members as to how best to manage the world in its interests.
Wessel's article is certainly crafted for the second ("treetops") audience, whose members can and must be trusted with something more closely approximating the real story on current events and social realities. A Wall Street Journal reporter can suggestively touch upon the regressive, plutocracy-friendly political and policy results that follow when large numbers of Americans hold false beliefs regarding upward mobility in the U.S. But the Journal does not intend, we can be quite sure, to use its remarkable communications power to launch a "grassroots" campaign to disabuse Americans of these beliefs, which are highly functional for the business class. The Journal's editorial board, finally, is not anytime soon going to drop its insistence that U.S. policy continue to reflect and exacerbate the astonishing, increasingly fixed gap between rich and poor in the land of Jefferson and Lincoln.
Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Director of Research at The Chicago Urban League. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2004) and Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy and the State of Black Chicago (Chicago, April 2005).