A Broken Ladder: The Problem With American Social Mobility

Image: Dave Simonds/The Economist

Image: Dave Simonds/The Economist

The American dream.  A promise to many these days, has been left unfulfilled. They say that if you work hard, you will succeed in our country where “the only way to go is up” in terms of class and income mobility.  So why is it so much harder to climb the class ladder in the U.S than in other first-world nations?

The answer is surprising:  the biggest indicator of socio-economic mobility is commuting time, according to a study by Harvard University.  Over all other considerations, including education, hourly wage, and time worked per year, your travel time can be the biggest indicator of your lifetime economic success.  As the New York Times puts it, “The longer an average commute in a given county, the worse the chances of low-income families there moving up the ladder”.  This can largely be attributed to increased access to better groceries, and wider access to better jobs within a reasonable commute.  The ability to avoid jobs found in low-income areas that often pay minimum wage in favor of finding jobs in areas with lower poverty rates that typically pay above the minimum wage can be massively influential on your future.  When the average commute time is a little over 26 minutes, a shorter commute can be massively impactful on the livelihood of your family now, as well as your children’s family.

 Another massive factor in escaping poverty is access to levels of higher education. As of a 2015 study by the UC Davis Center for Poverty Research, more than ¼ of all people in poverty did not earn a high school degree, even though they make up only 12% of the population.  To contrast, the 5% of people who have a bachelor’s degree or higher only experience a 14% poverty rate.  That means that people without a degree are twice as likely as those who were able to attain a means of higher education to fall in the bottom income bracket.  This broken system inherently favors the top quartile of Americans, who compose 54% of those earning bachelor's degrees by age 24.

Finally, it’s important to address the elephant in the room: our nation’s painfully inadequate minimum wage.  In our nation, there is a stark difference between the minimum wage and a living one, as the minimum wage is only $7.25/hour.  Current estimates put the necessary wage for a family of four to be $11.83/hour for them to stay above the poverty line.  Even in the cheapest city in the Country(McAllen, Texas), one person needs to make $10.31/hour in order to stay afloat.  Our minimum wage is horribly outdated and is no longer fit for action in our nation’s current fight against poverty.

 All in all, it should be clear to all readers that while the issue of poverty is not uniquely American, it’s causes certainly are surprisingly unique. From commute times, to levels of educational attainment, to the minimum wage, there are a plethora of crises that must be addressed in order to alleviate the struggles of the lowest class now and in the future.

Margo Cohen Comment