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Declining Upward Mobility

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The American Dream has long evoked the idea that the next generation will have a better life than the previous one. Today, many Americans feel that dream is in jeopardy.

While I have my objections to the entire idea of “The American Dream” because it has a priori assumptions that will and should be at the bottom of a society that values competitiveness and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps over lifting all boats, there’s no question that it’s a powerful myth. And at its core is that if people work hard, their children will have the opportunity to live a better life than they did. But in the New Gilded Age, that’s not happening anymore.

The widening gap between rich and poor Americans has pushed the chances of children earning more money than their parents down to around 50 percent, economic researchers say. That’s a sharp fall from 1940, when 90 percent of kids were destined to move up the income ladder.

Describing an American dream that for many has faded into a less plentiful reality, Stanford economics professor Raj Chetty said in a news release, “It’s basically a coin flip as to whether you’ll do better than your parents.”

The downward trend held true across the U.S. — and the steepest declines were seen among middle-class families, according to Chetty and his fellow researchers in the Equality of Opportunity Project.

The study detailed “absolute income mobility” from one generation to the next by comparing the household income of 30-year-olds to what their parents made at the same age. The Stanford study used data from both the U.S. Census and anonymized Internal Revenue Service records to compile stats for people born between 1940 and 1984.

Well, that is certainly not good and part of a much larger failure of policymakers to think through the implications of globalization and automation for average Americans. And where it is the worst?

Over that period, it became less likely that children born in every U.S. state would out-earn their parents, with the largest drops in upward mobility seen in Michigan, Illinois and other parts of the industrial Midwest.

And this is why I simply don’t get why people are so completely dismissal of the economic problems of this region turning voters toward Trump. While, once again, Trump’s victory is by no means entirely or even primarily because of the economic anxiety suffered by the white working class, there’s no question that in these states, it played a critical factor in swinging some voters over to him. They knew Hillary Clinton had no real answer for them (and lets face it, she didn’t. Neither did Obama) because the Democratic Party could never come up with a solution for the loss of good union jobs in these states. Trump just flat out lied to them. But economic mobility in these states is particularly horrible, in no small part because the government has not engaged in the type of regional economic planning necessary to guide these states out of deindustrialization. So it’s hardly surprising that voters there would find any possible alternative something to run with, especially when that alternative made them feel empowered with white supremacy.

Incidentally, here’s a really neat website that explores the history of places like the abandoned factory in Rockford, Illinois I used for the above image.

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