07 February 2012

Mobility is not and can not be a ratchet

The Atlantic | Megan McArdle | Income Mobility Means Some People Have to Lose Everything

I've said before that I don't care about income inequality per se, and that focusing on it seems more like institutionalized envy than sound policy. I care about the absolute condition of the poor--do they have the basics of a decent life?
One thousand times Amen.
On the other hand, income mobility is a very important issue. Regardless of how far the top is from the bottom, children born in America should have an equal chance to move from the latter to the former. This is especially important given that so many of the highest-paid jobs are also the most pleasant.

Many people apparently agree with me: the issue of income mobility has become more prominent in policy debates over the last few years. And yet I submit that this agreement is entirely theoretical. How many of the people reading this blog would actually tolerate a one-in-five chance that their children would end up poor?

Because that's what income mobility actually means. It doesn't just mean giving a lift to the folks at the bottom--superior health care, better K-12 education. Everyone in the country cannot be above average. For the poor to have a better shot at ending up in the top quintiles, the folks in the top few quintiles have to run the risk of ending up in the lowest.

Who among the parents fighting so hard to get their kids into a good school is going to volunteer to have their kid give up the slot in the upper middle class? People are willing to accept a certain amount of slippage, but only as long as it comes with added job security (government) or special fulfillment (the ministry, the arts)--and even in the latter cases, Mom and Dad will often be strenuously arguing against following your calling. But how many doctors and lawyers would simply glumly accept it if you told them that sorry, junior's going to be an intermittently employed long-haul trucker, and your darling daughter is going to work the supermarket checkout, because all the more lucrative and interesting slots went to smarter and more talented people?
I don't understand McArdle's logic here. Just because I don't want my kid to be a long-haul truck driver (like several people in my family tree, I'll add) that's supposed to mean that I don't want anyone to be a trucker? Or I don't want anyone to be a trucker if their father had a better job? Her position doesn't even begin to compute with me.

Downward mobility isn't something I desire for my kids, but it's something I think ought to happen to some of my cousins, classmates and other friends. (At least until they straighten out their lives and develop the character that supports high income/wealth.) Just because I want my children to do well for themselves doesn't mean I don't have a couple of lazy, arrogant, eloi cousins who I think deserve to be knocked down a couple of pegs from where previous generation stood.
You don't have anyone in your family you think deserves to do worse than their parents? Really? Everyone in your clan behaves in a way that makes them deserve to rise higher than they are? Your reunions must be a lot more pleasant than mine then.
One of the reasons this is so hard is that so many of the problems poor people deal with are created by living near other poor people. Most poor people are not criminals, but most criminals are poor people, because crime actually doesn't pay (very well). Most poor people take out their trash, maintain their homes, and stay off drugs--but the kind of people who don't do those things are disproportionately likely to end up in poverty. Which is to say, in your neighborhood, if you are poor--shooting at each other and hitting bystanders, breeding vermin that migrate into your living space, pilfering your stuff to support their drug habit.

Someone has to live near those people; whatever your expectations for antipoverty policy, it surely does not include the end of drug addiction and slovenly habits. But should it be your kid? Would you want them to have a one-in-five chance of living in those conditions?
Who said the worst part of being poor is being surrounded by poor people? He was right. One more good reason to decouple geography from government services, especially operating schools.
[Middle class parents] pay lip service to mobility, but they work damn hard to make sure that their kids don't get exposed to a peer group that might normalize dropping out and working low-wage, dead end jobs, or going on welfare.
I know many football coaches who work damn hard to make sure their teams aren't the ones who lose. Does this mean they don't believe in football, or in competition? That they don't actually want their to be winners and losers? That they don't want the refs to keep score? That the they don't think the team with the lowest number of points should record an 'L' on their schedule? That their talk about competition is just "lip service"?

Just because you work to avoid an outcome for yourself or your loved ones doesn't mean you think that outcome shouldn't be a possibility.

I want my future children to be tested. Yes, I also want them to pass that test and build successful lives for themselves. And I will work hard to increase the chance of them doing that. That doesn't mean I don't want them to be tested.*In fact I think growing up knowing you have no chance of slipping down is pretty toxic. How many Roman emperors born in the purple turned out not to be headcases? Two? It's not that I want my children to move up the income ladder. It's that I want them to have the habits, make the decisions, and cultivate the behaviors that enables them to do so. And that's impossible unless there is the chance that they will slide down as well as climb up.

Maybe most other people don't feel this way. Maybe they want mobility to be one way, at least for their loved ones. I don't know. But I wouldn't conclude that just because people work to help their children succeed they don't also think it should be possible for their children to fail.

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