By David Callahan
The opinions expressed are his own.
Top Republicans have a simple answer to surging public concern about America’s vast wealth divide: More income mobility. “We want success for everybody,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said last week, adding that Americans shouldn’t “excoriate some who have been successful.” This remedy for economic unfairness taps into the popular American belief that public policy should ensure equality of opportunity, not outcome.
Too bad it won’t work.
Changes in the economy mean that, no matter how hard people work or how much they invest in education, they may still find themselves barely treading water. Even before the financial crisis, there weren’t enough good jobs to go around – thanks to globalization, automation, declining unionization, and lax labor standards. The majority of new jobs created during the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were low-wage positions with no benefits. These trends – not, say, a lack of ambition – help explain why half of all American households bring in under $50,000 and have no assets.
“Success for everybody” is simply not possible against this backdrop of structural inequality. Ironically, conservatives like Cantor are placing ever more faith in the great American virtues of hard work and self-improvement even as these virtues deliver less and less mobility.
Once upon a time, for example, Americans with a strong work ethic but little education could move upward thanks to unionized manufacturing jobs. But as both manufacturing jobs and unions started to disappear in the 1970s, earnings of high school-only males fell off a cliff: declining by 15 between 1973 and 1989. Today, about a third of poor families with children include a parent who is working full-time.
Realizing that plain hard work doesn’t mean upward mobility anymore, Americans have been piling into college at record levels – only to find that a degree is no magic ticket to success, either. Pay for college educated males has largely stagnated over the past few decades while living costs have soared. For example, nearly all the modest income gains of middle income families between 1999 and 2009 were eaten up by rising healthcare costs. Increasingly, too, white collar jobs are disappearing in the same way that blue collar jobs did – being shipped overseas or eliminated by technology or reclassified as temporary with no benefits.