There's No Simple Solution for Economic Mobility

To move up the income ladder, people need to take lots of baby steps, why is why solitary, sweeping policy solutions can't solve this problem.

Graduating students applaud as US President Barack Obama speaks during commencement ceremonies at Barnard College May 14, 2012 in New York City. (National Journal)

The more researchers learn about what it takes to build an effective ladder of opportunity, the more the answer looks like, well, a ladder.

In other words, research tells us that no single crossroads determines whether young people born in modest circumstances can advance to a better life than their parents. To achieve upward mobility, youths must cross a succession of hurdles, with each test they pass placing them on stronger footing to master the next. The process is sequential and cumulative — like climbing a ladder.

In a welcome shift, more political leaders in both parties are focusing on the missing rungs in America's ladders to opportunity. President Obama on Thursday convened at the White House nearly 100 college presidents who pledged to expand higher-education opportunities for minority and low-income students. Earlier this month, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., insisted: "The erosion of equal opportunity is among the greatest threats to our exceptionalism as a nation."

This concern is well-placed. Despite America's self-image as a society that allows all to advance as far as their talents will take them, our economy and educational system increasingly apportion success to children with the foresight to be born into affluence. As the Brookings Institution's Richard Reeves and Kerry Searle Grannis noted in a perceptive paper this week, a child raised in the bottom fifth of the income distribution now is almost six times as likely to remain there as to reach the top fifth.

The big insight from Reeves and Grannis is that reversing these trends requires more than "a one-shot policy." Their summary of the research finds that kids from low-income families are much less likely than those with more-affluent parents to receive effective parenting in early childhood; to start school ready to learn; to be equipped for postsecondary education; and to get a strong start in the labor market or when forming a family. Closing these gaps requires smart, sustained engagement, because evidence shows that the positive effects of even the best interventions at one level (such as good Head Start programs) "wear off over time unless there are additional, reinforcing interventions at the next life stage."

That means there's no silver bullet to close the opportunity gap. Even expanded early-childhood education — where most experts would place the most chips — can't guarantee later success. But this analysis also means that public and private policy can move the needle at many stages of life.

Obama's White House conference focused on one critical point: the transition from high school to college. American higher education now does more to reinforce than dissolve inherited privilege. A new U.S. Education Department study tracking high school sophomores from 2002 found that children with parents in the top fourth of the income distribution were four times as likely to have obtained a four-year college degree by 2012 as those from families on the bottom fourth. About three-fifths of children of parents with postgraduate degrees had their own four-year degrees, compared with just one-sixth of kids of parents with only a high school diploma.

At the White House, Obama pressed college presidents, nonprofit leaders, and foundation heads for commitments in four areas meant to close those gaps: expanding programs that guide at-risk kids as young as middle school toward college; providing college guidance to more low-income high schools; and rethinking postsecondary remedial instruction.

Most important, the universities (which included some of the nation's top schools) promised greater effort to recruit and graduate high-achieving, low-income kids who meet their academic requirements but don't realize it, and thus apply to less selective schools with fewer resources. That pledge builds on the pioneering work of Stanford University economist Caroline Hoxby — now vastly expanded by the College Board — who found that simply sending low-income kids information on which top schools they are qualified to attend persuades many to raise their sights. Gene Sperling, director of the White House National Economic Council, says more university commitments will follow. "This is a launch — not an end," he says. "This is the start of a mobilization to bring about more action [and] more participants."

The White House conference shined a useful spotlight, but many forces must be reversed for higher education to truly expand opportunity: rising costs; the shift in public university funding from taxpayers to parents; restrictions on affirmative action; and the trend of colleges redirecting their scholarship dollars from needy families toward academic stars intended to raise their national rankings. And even all these factors are just one component of the larger challenge of reinvigorating upward mobility.

The good news is that restoring mobility pays off with the social equivalent of compound interest. Each time society helps a child succeed it improves the odds that their children will receive the effective parenting that positions them for their own success. "If you break the negative cycle decisively enough, there is a very good chance it will stay broken, which means you feel the effect for generations," says Reeves. Amid all the daunting trends in mobility, that reward is a powerful reason for optimism — and renewed commitment to helping more children climb higher than their parents.