This article appears in the November-December 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. Reprinted here by permission.
It’s Hard to Make It in America: How the United States Stopped Being the Land of Opportunity
by Lane Kenworthy
For all the differences between Democrats and Republicans that were laid bare during the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign, the parties’ standard-bearers, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, do seem to have agreed on one thing: the importance of equal opportunity. In remarks in Chicago in August, Obama called for an “America where no matter who you are, no matter what you look like, no matter where you come from, no matter what your last name is, no matter who you love, you can make it here if you try.” The same month, he urged the Supreme Court to uphold affirmative action in public universities, putting his weight behind what has been a mainstay of U.S. equal opportunity legislation since the 1960s. Days later, the Republican vice presidential nominee, Paul Ryan, echoed Obama’s sentiment, saying, “We promise equal opportunity, not equal outcomes.” Romney, too, argued that whereas Obama “wants to turn America into a European-style entitlement society,” his administration would “ensure that we remain a free and prosperous land of opportunity.”
It is no accident that both campaigns chose to emphasize equality of opportunity. It has long been at the center of the American ethos. And one of the United States’ major successes in the last half century has been its progress toward ensuring that its citizens get roughly the same basic chances in life, regardless of gender or race. Today, women are more likely to graduate from college than men and are catching up in employment and earnings, too. The gap between whites and nonwhites has narrowed as well, albeit less dramatically.
Yet this achievement has been double edged. As gender and race have become less significant barriers to advancement, family background, an obstacle considered more relevant in earlier eras, has reemerged. Today, people who were born worse off tend to have fewer opportunities in life.
Of course, there is no perfect way to measure opportunities. The best method devised thus far is to look at outcomes: college completion, gainful employment, and sufficient income. If the average outcome for one group far outpaces that for another, social scientists conclude that the first group had greater opportunities. Comparing outcomes is not foolproof, as differences in outcomes can result from differences in effort. But a person’s effort is itself shaped by the circumstances he or she encounters.
To assess equality of opportunity among people from different family backgrounds, the measure of outcome that social scientists look at is relative intergenerational mobility — a person’s position on the income ladder relative to his or her parents’ position. Social scientists don’t have as much information as they would like about the extent of relative intergenerational mobility, its movement over time, and its causes. The data requirements are stiff; analysts need a survey that collects information about citizens’ incomes and other aspects of their life circumstances, then does the same for their children, and for their children’s children, and so on. The best assessment of this type in the United States, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, has been around only since the late 1960s.
Even so, there is general consensus among social scientists on a few basic points. Continue reading