Tuesday, May 29, 2007

the myth of the dream

Kevin Jon Heller at Opinio Juris cites from a new report that shows both that there’s less social mobility in the U.S. than in much of Western and Northern Europe and that Americans firmly believe the opposite.

Data on relative mobility suggest that people in the United States have experienced less relative mobility than is commonly believed. Most studies find that, in America, about half of the advantages of having a parent with a high income are passed on to the next generation. This means that one of the biggest predictors of an American child’s future economic success — the identity and characteristics of his or her parents — is predetermined and outside that child’s control. To be sure, the apple can fall far from the tree and often does in individual cases, but relative to other factors, the tree dominates the picture.

These findings are more striking when put in comparative context. There is little available evidence that the United States has more relative mobility than other advanced nations. If anything, the data seem to suggest the opposite. Using the relationship between parents’ and children’s incomes as an indicator of relative mobility, data show that a number of countries, including Denmark, Norway, Finland, Canada, Sweden, Germany, and France have more relative mobility than does the United States. Compared to the same peer group, Germany is 1.5 times more mobile than the United States, Canada nearly 2.5 times more mobile, and Denmark 3 times more mobile. Only the United Kingdom has relative mobility levels on par with those of the United States.

Ironically, despite this sobering data, the myth of the American dream is alive and well — Americans continue to be much more optimistic about economic mobility than their developed-country counterparts:
The underlying belief in the fluidity of class and economic status has differentiated Americans from citizens in the majority of other developed nations. As the data... suggest, compared to their global counterparts, Americans have tended to be far more optimistic about their ability to control their own economic destinies through hard work, less likely to believe that coming from a wealthy family is important to getting ahead, less likely to think that differences in income within their country are too large, and less likely to favor the government’s taking responsibility to reduce those differences.

That is why I think the development noted in this NY Times article is a step in the right direction:
Concerned that the barriers to elite institutions are being increasingly drawn along class lines, and wanting to maintain some role as engines of social mobility, about two dozen schools — Amherst, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, the University of Virginia, Williams and the University of North Carolina, among them — have pushed in the past few years to diversify economically.

They are trying tactics like replacing loans with grants and curtailing early admission, which favors the well-to-do and savvy. But most important, Amherst, for instance, is doing more than giving money to low-income students; it is recruiting them and taking their socioeconomic background — defined by family income, parents’ education and occupation level — into account when making admissions decisions.

Amherst’s president, Anthony Marx, turns to stark numbers in a 2004 study by the Century Foundation, a policy institute in New York, to explain the effort: Three-quarters of students at top colleges come from the top socioeconomic quartile, with only one-tenth from the poorer half and 3 percent from the bottom quartile.

. . .

Mr. Jack’s high grades and test scores — a respectable 1200 on the SAT — won him a full scholarship to the University of Florida. But the median score for his Amherst class was 1422, and he would have been excluded had the admissions office not considered his socioeconomic class, and the obstacles he had overcome.

“Tony Jack with his pure intelligence — had he been raised in Greenwich, he would have been a 1500 kid,” said Tom Parker, the dean of admission. “He would have been tutored by Kaplan or Princeton Review. He would have had The New Yorker magazine on the coffee table.”

“Tony Jack is not an anomaly,” he added.

Mr. Jack, Amherst officials say, would likely not have benefited under traditional affirmative action programs. In their groundbreaking 1998 study of 28 selective universities, William Bowen, the former president of Princeton, and Derek Bok, now the interim president of Harvard, found that 86 percent of blacks who enrolled were middle or upper middle class. (Amherst was not included in that study.) The white students were even wealthier.
. . .

In Mr. Jack’s class of 413, 15 percent, or 61, students, are from families with incomes of less than $45,000 a year; about two-thirds of those are from families earning less than $30,000. He was amazed to discover how much preparation wealthier students had.

“People are groomed for the SAT,” Mr. Jack said. “They take Latin to help them with their vocabulary.”

I think it’s time to start talking about a timeframe for moving from race-based admission preferences in the U.S. to class-based preferences, or at least providing some metric for judging the success or failure of race-based affirmative action. And I don't mean "let's get rid of affirmative action and then we'll get around to figuring out a replacement just the other side of never". But just treading water like we are doing isn’t enough.

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