Income Mobility Means Some People Have to Lose Everything

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Like Ross Douthat, I've been following the recent blog conversation about income inequality and income mobility.  I'm not going to summarize the arguments about how closely they're connected--you should read Ross's excellent post for a good overview.  And I'm certainly not going to insert myself into an argument between two very smart economists who spend a lot of time studying this question.  But I was struck by a very troubling thought while I was reading through these debates:  only one of these problems matters, and it's the problem that we can't solve.  No, strike that.  I'm not sure whether the problem can be solved or not.  What I am very sure of is that we do not want to solve it, and that for that reason, we are very probably not going to.


I've said before that I don't care about income inequality per se, and that focusing on it seems more like institutionalized envy than sound policy.  I care about the absolute condition of the poor--do they have the basics of a decent life?  And I care about whether income inequality itself produces some sort of structural advantage in the political system.  (I'm skeptical).  But I don't care whether Bill Gates lives in a giant robot house that cost eighteen-squintillion dollars.  What I care about is whether some kid is growing up in a roach infested shack with no heat--something that has basically nothing to do with the size of Gates' fortune.

On the other hand, income mobility is a very important issue.  Regardless of how far the top is from the bottom, children born in America should have an equal chance to move from the latter to the former.  This is especially important given that so many of the highest-paid jobs are also the most pleasant.

Many people apparently agree with me: the issue of income mobility has become more prominent in policy debates over the last few years.  And yet I submit that this agreement is entirely theoretical.  How many of the people reading this blog would actually tolerate a one-in-five chance that their children would end up poor?

Because that's what income mobility actually means.  It doesn't just mean giving a lift to the folks at the bottom--superior health care, better K-12 education.  Everyone in the country cannot be above average.  For the poor to have a better shot at ending up in the top quintiles, the folks in the top few quintiles have to run the risk of ending up in the lowest.

Who among the parents fighting so hard to get their kids into a good school is going to volunteer to have their kid give up the slot in the upper middle class?  People are willing to accept a certain amount of slippage, but only as long as it comes with added job security (government) or special fulfillment (the ministry, the arts)--and even in the latter cases, Mom and Dad will often be strenuously arguing against following your calling.  But how many doctors and lawyers would simply glumly accept it if you told them that sorry, junior's going to be an intermittently employed long-haul trucker, and your darling daughter is going to work the supermarket checkout, because all the more lucrative and interesting slots went to smarter and more talented people?

To a first approximation, none.  Oh, of course, middle class families do have those spectacular screw-ups who end up stuck in dead-end jobs, and they don't expel them or anything.  But they would not cooperate with any system that made such a result fairly likely--and that is what we're actually talking about, when we're talking about rising income mobility. Someone in society is going to end up doing crappy jobs, because trash needs to be hauled and Alzheimer's patients need to have their diapers changed.  The primary job of a middle class parent is to ensure that their children are not those people.  

One of the reasons this is so hard is that so many of the problems poor people deal with are created by living near other poor people.  Most poor people are not criminals, but most criminals are poor people, because crime actually doesn't pay (very well).  Most poor people take out their trash, maintain their homes, and stay off drugs--but the kind of people who don't do those things are disproportionately likely to end up in poverty.  Which is to say, in your neighborhood, if you are poor--shooting at each other and hitting bystanders, breeding vermin that migrate into your living space, pilfering your stuff to support their drug habit.

Someone has to live near those people; whatever your expectations for antipoverty policy, it surely does not include the end of drug addiction and slovenly habits.  But should it be your kid? Would you want them to have a one-in-five chance of living in those conditions?  (Or the different, but not necessarily less miserable, conditions of rural poverty?)  Of course not.  You'd do anything you had to in order to keep that from happening.

And so middle class parents do.  They pay lip service to mobility, but they work damn hard to make sure that their kids don't get exposed to a peer group that might normalize dropping out and working low-wage, dead end jobs, or going on welfare.  

No matter how deeply ideologically committed you are to public education and income mobility, you will not leave your kid in a high-poverty school where gangs are valorized and college is not--or even in a working class school that will close off the chances for admission to Harvard.  You'll agitate against zoning that would bring poor people in (though of course, not because of the poor people, it's just that, you know, the character of the town is quiet single family houses and the infrastructure won't support multi-family plus we don't really have the social services here and they'd be much better off in Camden, actually.)  With other like-minded parents, you'll take over the school and reshape its priorities to match those of the upper-middle class.  Or you'll move to a different school system, naturally talking about the enrichment programs rather than the more affluent, education-focused peer group you're buying for your kids.  

The one thing you will not say--unless you are isolated in a rural area with exactly one school and no critical mass of similar parents--is, "Oh, well, I guess the best we can hope for is a third-tier state school."  It is no accident that the middle class bits of the New York City school system have managed to hijack the best resources for themselves, in the process building a pretty good public school system which exists cheek-by-jowl with a very lousy one.

Remember, this is the meritocratic system we're talking about.  This is the system that was supposed to break the spine of the old aristocracy of wealth and pull--and did, only to replace it with one that seems to be even more ruthlessly effective at shielding their children from competition.

And that's the optimistic case--the case that assumes that there is virtually no parental transmission of real economic virtues, through genetics, intensive nurturing, or through the learned behaviors and peer effects that conservatives bundle up as "culture".   Obviously, as you introduce those sorts of elements into the model, for which the sorts of interventions one can imagine run from horribly difficult to morally monstrous, the picture gets rather bleaker.

We should be talking about income mobility--it's probably the most important moral challenge facing our society.  But I very much doubt that we'll end up doing much more than talk.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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