social mobility

Opinion: Dear America, I'm not your excuse.

Oct 17, 2016
portrait of eric thomas
Courtesy of Eric Thomas

We’ve always used successful individuals as a barometer of possibility for everyone. “If I made it, then so can you.”

This the siren call of almost every motivational speaker. And it makes perfect sense. It’s encouraging to see someone that’s like you from similar circumstances achieve greatness. 

As a guy that grew up in not so privileged neighborhood, I’m often used as an example of what hard work can achieve. But sometimes people use success stories as an excuse to not care about others. The fact is, when the system is failing people, one or two outliers are often used as an excuse to deflect social responsibility.

User fdecomite / Flickr / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

“Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” is a phrase that used to describe trying to do something that was nearly impossible. (Imagine, for a moment, trying to stand up by pulling on your own shoes. You’d look pretty silly.)

But somewhere along the way, it’s become short-hand for the kind of crowd-pleasing rags to riches stories found everywhere from movie screens to the evening news.


Education is one of the best ways to get ahead in America. So, why do so many young people from poor backgrounds drop out? An economic paper published this month by the Brookings Institution suggests one possible answer, and it has nothing to do with grades or test scores. Maybe, for kids who grow up poor, with evidence of inequality all around them, dropping out of school just seems like the rational choice. 

It should be the opposite. Most economists would say, kids who start out at the bottom of the economic heap should have the incentive to get as much education as possible. Many economists believe the problem really comes down to skills. Young people trying to climb up out of poverty want to be highly educated, the thinking goes. They just don't get the right skills and training along the way. In this model, the education system itself is where the problem occurs, and that's where the fix is needed.

But the new Brookings paper by economists Melissa Kearney and Philip Levine (who we previously mentioned here) suggests the problem lies elsewhere.

user kvoelker / Flickr

I've been thinking a lot about names lately - what they mean, what they project, what kinds of assumptions people make when they hear a name. So I decided to call up some experts and ask them: what's in a name?

Last week, we brought you the story of economic historian Gregory Clark, who's found new evidence that suggests social mobility happens more slowly than anyone imagined. Yesterday, NPR ran the story nationally. Here's a sidebar I wrote for their website to describe Clark's research a little more

flickr user Biscarotte

Here is a question that is at the core of our work at State of Opportunity: How much of your economic destiny is tied to your parents, and how much do you control?

When scientists try to answer this question, what they’re measuring is something called “social mobility.”

We've been looking into new research that suggests your fate is not just tied to your parents, but to ancestors hundreds and hundreds of years ago. And improving opportunity across generations might be a lot harder than anyone imagined.