Advancing social mobility—a phrase that’s shorthand for making it more likely that children will grow up to be better off financially than their parents—elicits universal approval as a virtuous endeavor. It’s a progressive cause that most people instinctively support without giving much thought to all that it signifies.
The semantics partially inhibit critical faculties—“mobility” is preferable to inertia. Also, the idea of social mobility conveys a righteous alternative to the rigidity and oppression of countries that historically were controlled by hereditary aristocratic rulers. And even in the absence of an aristocratic class, it has a particular appeal in the United States, an immigrant society, where it wasn’t unreasonable for people arriving at Ellis Island empty-handed to hope that their children would attain middle-class prosperity. Although some people got stuck on the bottom and some ethnic groups moved up more quickly than others, the Horatio Alger myth remains a reality for many immigrants.
Economists often express the rate of social mobility in terms of the likelihood that children will rise above the economic position into which they were born. Thus, there appeared to be good reason for consternation when President Obama, speaking in 2013 to an audience at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, decried the diminishing levels of upward mobility in recent years, pointing out that an American child born into the poorest fifth of households, by income, “has less than a 1-in-20 shot of making it into the top.” Urging the country not to pit the interests of the middle class against those of the poor, but rather to try “to improve upward mobility for all people,” he observed “that it is harder today for a child born here in America to improve her station in life than it is for children in most of our wealthy allies—countries like Canada or Germany or France. They have greater mobility than we do.”