One of the few areas of agreement now between Washington's warring lawmakers is the broad idea that kids should have the opportunity to rise up the income ladder as they age. It's the old Horatio Alger stories writ large for the political stage.
Yet despite this consensus, the federal government does not offer any standard way to measure so-called social mobility. We can read up on official poverty stats, or measurements of the federal deficit, but we do not track mobility at the federal level in the same systematic way.
That's why Richard Reeves, a fellow in economic studies and the policy director for the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, has offered up a modest proposal to create a federal "Office of Opportunity." "Adopting an official mobility measure is unlikely to require vast new data collection — though some investments would need to be made," he writes in his Brookings proposal. "It's more of a question of deciding mobility is worth measuring and promoting."
So, theoretically, how would the government go about measuring social mobility? Well, it could look at the proportion of children born in the bottom quintiles of the income ladder who rise to the top two quintiles. (That's a data point that Harvard economists recently relied on for their groundbreaking work on geography and intergenerational mobility). Other suggestions: Measuring the number of 4-year-olds enrolled in pre-school; high school graduation rates of those with grade point averages above 2.5; the number of people ages 25 to 49 who work; or the number of births within marriages. All of these statistics give economists and policymakers ways to map out the changes, or lack thereof, in movement up the income ladder.