Monday, May 16, 2005

The Times Takes On Class

Kudos to the NYTs for broaching a subject that has become increasingly taboo -- social class -- even as inequality continues to widen. Yesterday, the NYTs opened a series of articles, entitled "Class Matters," which explores how social class determines how far an individual can climb up America's increasingly long and fractured economic ladder. Here Janny Scott and David Leonhardt sum up their findings:
...[C]lass is still a powerful force in American life. Over the past three decades, it has come to play a greater, not lesser, role in important ways. At a time when education matters more than ever, success in school remains linked tightly to class. At a time when the country is increasingly integrated racially, the rich are isolating themselves more and more. At a time of extraordinary advances in medicine, class differences in health and lifespan are wide and appear to be widening.

And new research on mobility, the movement of families up and down the economic ladder, shows there is far less of it than economists once thought and less than most people believe. In fact, mobility, which once buoyed the working lives of Americans as it rose in the decades after World War II, has lately flattened out or possibly even declined, many researchers say.

Mobility is the promise that lies at the heart of the American dream. It is supposed to take the sting out of the widening gulf between the have-mores and the have-nots. There are poor and rich in the United States, of course, the argument goes; but as long as one can become the other, as long as there is something close to equality of opportunity, the differences between them do not add up to class barriers.
The Horatio Algers argument, or myth, is American folklore. This isn't surprising and neither is people's difficulty, on every economic level, in acknowledgeing this. The poor and the middle-class have a lot invested in this folklore: Who wants to admit they are relatively stuck in the same socio-economic group for the rest of their life? Upper middle-class people as well as the rich want to believe that everything they've acquired or stashed away is legit, rightfully earned through hardwork without the privilege class bestows.

And while all believe in the American Dream of rising up the rungs of the socio-economic ladder, the United States ranks behind France, Denmark, and Canada in terms of social mobility while ranking parallel with Great Britain. What should strike one is that all these countries have public policies that are more socialistic than the United States. Interestingly, Denmark, probably one of the most robust social democracies, ranks number one in social mobility. While the NYTs authors don't make these connections, this data seems to show that government intervention into the marketplace helps rather than hinders social mobility. When done justly and democratically, the government can help produce socio-economic results that benefit the masses and help give those born into disadvantage the foundation -- good health and a good education -- needed to level the playing field so that merit, not privilege, is indicative of how far the individual will climb in a lifetime.

If this country, or any other country for that matter, is concerned with providing equal opportunity to all its citizens, then the public must organize to push for free college education and free, universal healthcare for all. A healthy and intelligent workforce can only be helpful in an era of increasing globalization where efficiency and intellectual capital are evermore important in determining a nation's competitiveness.