Tuesday, June 3, 2014

I want YOU for the U.S. dream

The beauty of the American Dream is that the accident of birth does not determine a child's life chances. Those born into a poor family can become rich. Those raised by parents without education can go to college. Those growing up in rented homes can become homeowners. The future is in one's own hands.

Source:  The Pew Charitable Trusts (2012)
But there is strong evidence that the American dream is, well, just that, a dream. Social mobility is low. Children born into the poorest quintile are more likely to earn below average incomes (Figure 1, left, shows that 70 per cent of Americans born into the bottom quintile will remain below the middle in adulthood). They are less likely to go on to higher education. They are less likely to own their own home.

How then do we tackle a problem that appears to be ingrained in our society? One excellent suggestion is for Congress to create an Office for Opportunity. Establishing such a Federal institution would protect social mobility from the waxing and waning of political attention. The Office would define and target a single measure or set of measures. These could cover early childhood development, K-12 and college results, labour market participation and / or family circumstances, to track progress over a lifetime. It would also publish commentary on how well the USA was doing against these measures.

But this might not be enough. The UK government has set up a similar body, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. The Commission sets out targets for, and reports on progress against, a set of indicators. The trouble is that the general public have little awareness of its existence and so do not protest when goals are not met. Few know that the UK government has also committed in legislation to eradicate child poverty by 2020. Fewer still know that because of severe cuts to social security, the number of children in poverty could rise to 5 million by that time. For this reason, Save the Children UK recently launched its campaign, "A Fair Start for Every Child", asking for specific measures to ensure that a child's birth does not determine its chance in life. (Disclosure:  I was the lead author on their report).

What is required is a society-wide strategy to hold governments to account on their commitments. Such an approach was taken with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were publicly agreed by participating members. Armed with the knowledge of what their government had promised, developing country citizens were empowered to push leaders to deliver on specific promises. Learning from this, the US government should publicly commit to a set of SMDGs (Social Mobility Development Goals). It should undertake an extensive public awareness campaign to garner action by civil society. This would also ensure that ruling parties are held to account by the public. Only by doing so can we get America moving and have a decent shot of turning the American dream into a reality.


Prashant Raval said...

Hi Priya,

You discuss the possibility of creating a federal Office for Opportunity, which could define and target a set of measures covering various aspects of equal opportunity. But I fear this could actually be ineffective at genuinely improving the situation at hand - officials will simply become satisfied as soon as certain numbers hit certain targets, as they can sit back in the comfort of some chosen measure which 'proves' their success. Concerned members of the public can then no longer push the Government for more action, because targets have already been met.

We don't need yet another set of statistics for the Government to publish and hide behind. But we do need reaffirmation of commitment to improving social mobility such that it is always high on the agenda. This should then lead to grass-roots action by community agencies making decisions at the lowest level, helping families to support the learning of their children. We should ensure that the defining of the measures is done properly, and that the measuring itself is only a side focus regarding then tackling the issue at hand.

Priya Kothari said...

Thanks for your comment, which is especially relative to the UK where a set of indicators on social mobility has been published. In the US, we are one step behind, we don't even have those indicators. There are some excellent grassroots organisations out there working to improve social mobility at the micro level. What we need now is a change in the institutional (macro) architecture that drives social immobility and inequality - be that in education, healthcare, the labour market etc. This would provide the framework within which the local organisations that you mention would operate.

The Office for Opportunity, combined with a set of Social Mobility Development Goals, would provide just such a framework.

Ryan Nazareth said...

Hi Priya, thanks for sharing your enthusiasm for even bigger government in the US! Ha ha

My thoughts are along the same vien as Prashant

First, on the Brookings paper by Richard Reeves:
1) Agree with him that there is a strong case for a mobility measure. This is true in other countries too.
a. Though, not necessarily to appease the “shared definition of American Fairness”; I would like to see that definition. It’s the land of Winthrop, Twain and Takaki ).
b. From a global perspective, This definition needs to consider the current levels of global mobility, especially in post-secondary education
2) However, his case for a FEDERAL Office of Opportunity is a bit problematic to me based on:
- Scale: In terms of geography and population density of the US, this should be devolved to the individual states, and only interfered with when there is need. The lack of an interstate / region co-ordination activity in his elaboration of what the office should do reduces the need for this office to be a Federal one. Also, any recommendations made by the Federal Office would be unlikely to be made on an inter-state basis: Will they tell the people in State A to move to State B which has higher levels of mobility?
- Incumbent interests / Devolved authority: Following on for the above point, recommendations have to be implemented at the State level and will involve with the Department of Education or the Department of Labor. Within the existing State / Federal system, the lack of any operational authority, the Office will be reduced to a think tank.
- Fairness: As my point above – is there a shared definition of “American Fairness”? Not quite sure whether he is advocating whether the Office should be moderating this shared definition at a federal level.

3) Accountability: This is what I find most problematic with the Office
- Reeves states: “An Office of Opportunity would not deliver programs or allocate funds. The role of the Office would be to produce the official mobility measure, promote key indicators of social and economic mobility, and evaluate policy options for boosting rates of mobility. The new Office of Opportunity will act, then, as a commitment device, a measuring device, and an accountability device.”
- I fail to see how the Office morphs in a commitment and accountability device. It has no control over implementation or sanctions for non-conformance. “naming and shaming” is not enough.

On your particular thoughts:

1) I like the comparison to the UK’s the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. The commission has a key role in ADVOCACY - acting as an advocate for social mobility beyond government by challenging employers, the professions and universities amongst others to play their part in improving life chances.
a. I do not see this activity in Reeve’s elaboration and this goes back to my point 3 above

2) I agree awareness is a key first step, but awareness is very different from publications, and this fundamental activity has not elaborated as a goal for the Office.

3) On the MDGs, they were extremely problematic to get agreement on and measurement of performance to these goals has been ‘camouflaged’

Like Prashant, I am a strong advocate for local solutions and campaigns. Figure 4 in the brief evidences the need for this. There is a need to understand the causes of this disparity. Macro level statistics hide the causal relationships and I am not sure whether another federal institution with 10 million in funding will be able to get to the level of depth that is required.

PS: The American Dream should be the next topic! Now that will be an interesting study of global mobility from the Pilgrims to Winthrop to Alexis De Tocqueville to Fredrik Douglas to Takaki

Priya Kothari said...

Ryan, thanks so much for your detailed thoughts. I’ll respond to the comments which are about my articulation of the problem and proposed solutions:

(1) On the definition of the American Dream, see President Obama's December 2013 remarks on economic mobility. A few lines that stood out for me were "America's basic bargain - that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead", "success doesn't depend on being born into wealth or privilege" and "the combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American Dream".

(2) Tackling social mobility should not be an either/or between local, state and federal actions. Yes, Figure 4 that you refer to (taken from Chetty et al (2014)) advocates place-based initiatives, but I would argue that a Federal body has the incentive and resources to carry out surveys across time or space to identify the most effective policy interventions, that grassroots organisations can then implement.

To give you a specific example, the Federal Deposit Insurance Company (FDIC) publishes a comprehensive financial education curriculum, "Money Smart". It is designed to help low- and moderate-income individuals outside the financial mainstream enhance their financial skills. This can help with reducing debt, improving credit and purchasing their first ever home (all key to economic and social mobility). Local and national organisations take the courses and adapt them to the needs of their local population. Research undertaken by FDIC has shown the effectiveness of such interventions.