Economic inequality and mobility are not the same thing

It’s the story of the day. Well, it’s the story of the past, well, ever. It seems the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the middle gets squeezed. And, truly that’s at least been the case since 1980.


Some see the cure for this malady to be “economic mobility,” which basically means, making it easier for people who were born poor to stop being so poor and start being middle class (or rich even!). Hard work and smarts! The American dream! It’s the obsession of Americans, this idea that there’s a path for people born in the lower rungs of society to the top, and only people who don’t want to (because it’s “hard”) stay poor.

Economic mobility probably was never that high in the U.S. It has probably never been high anywhere. Hell, it’s probably not even possible. The game is rigged: Institutions that are created to be pathways to better economic fortunes seem to always enshrine the economic order. “Let’s use test scores to send poor kids to top colleges” gets turned into a massive industry that makes rich kids get better test scores. As worker productivity opens better jobs up the salary level, other hurdles block all but well connected job applicants from attaining them. Corporations wield massive influence over the same governments that claim to want to raise mobility. So, in the name of “creating jobs,” taxes get cut, teachers get fired, unions get busted and minimum wages stop rising.

Economic mobility is a canard that distracts us from something we can fix: inequality. And the solution is actually not difficult: make poor people less poor. You can do this by giving them money, you can do this by mandating that their employees pay them more money, you can do it by making it harder for bosses to exploit workers, and you can do this by empowering workers and governments so they have a fighting chance against the top. 

But don’t expect the free market fairy to wipe it away with magic mobility dust.


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