Mike Kueber's Blog

February 18, 2013

Equal opportunity in America

Filed under: Culture,Education,Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 11:10 pm
Tags: ,

The NY Times today contained an op-ed piece by Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz titled “Equal Opportunity, our national myth.”  I’ve probably blogged a dozen times over the years about equal opportunity, including a post about Stiglitz’s book called The Price of Inequality.   

In his op-ed piece, Stiglitz starts with the standard liberal accusation – i.e., America’s economic mobility is lower than most of Europe and all of Scandinavia.  Like most such critics, Stiglitz fails to explain his conclusion.  I wish he would respond to the following explanation provided in an article in Time magazine in November 2011 (and subsequently discussed in my blog):   

  • Yet it is important to understand that when you compare Europe and America, you are comparing very different societies.  High-growth Nordic nations with good social safety nets, which have the greatest leads in social mobility over the U.S., are small and homogeneous.  On average, only 7% of their populations are ethnic minorities (who are often poorer and thus less mobile than the overall populations), compared with 28% in the U.S.  Even bigger nations like Germany don’t have to deal with populations as socially and economically diverse as America’s.”  

Stiglitz did, however, provide a link to a decade-old study by the Brookings Institute, which contained the following fascinating details:

  • Two out of three Americans have higher incomes than their parents, while one third are falling behind. After data are adjusted for inflation, 67 percent of Americans had higher levels of family incomes than their own parents.
  • Compared to their parents, they also live in families or households that are smaller and where there is more often a second earner.
  • It is easier to surpass parental income if one’s parents are low on the income ladder, because then one’s income can increase both because of economic growth and because of moving up the ladder relative to one’s parents. Indeed, four out of five children whose parents were in the bottom fifth of the income distribution end up with higher incomes than their parents.
  • Contrary to American beliefs about equality of opportunity, a child’s economic position is heavily influenced by that of his or her parents. Forty-two percent of children born to parents in the bottom fifth of the income distribution remain in the bottom, while 39 percent born to parents in the top fifth remain at the top.
  • Children of middle-income parents have a near-equal likelihood of ending up in any other quintile, presenting equal promise and peril for those born to middle-class parents.
  • The “rags to riches” story is much more common in Hollywood than on Main Street.  Only 6 percent of children born to parents with family income at the very bottom move to the very top.

Assuming that America is afflicted with unequal opportunity, Stiglitz’s prescription is the same as most experts who study this issue – i.e., more equal education for America’s kids.  His argument for better Pre-K and more financial accessibility for colleges make sense.  His complaint about the unequal playing field due to advantages that successful parents can bestow on their kids is a “gravity” issue that he should stop wasting his breath on.  There is nothing that anyone can do to level that field.



  1. Comparing the USA to Norway is intellectually dishonest. Dallas has more people than Norway. Dallas has more ethnic diversity than Europe. How do you maintain any intellectual integrity and compare a city state to a nation? Especially a homogenous nation. The USA has twice as many illegal Mexican immigrants as Norway has people. How many Norwegians don’t speak Norwegian? They have one climate in Norway, they have one geological feature (mountains). The USA has areas with harsh winters, hot summers, earth quakes, hurricanes. The USA mainland has mountains, volcanoes, swamps, jungle, rain forest, desert, beach and grass lands. The USA has 300 million people spread over 3,000 miles. 80% of Norway’s population is in one area smaller than Bexar county. Norway’s military numbers 23,000 – maybe they can defend Oslo. The USA is the primary defense mechanism of Japan, Taiwan, Europe, South America, and North America.

    Comparing Norway to the USA is like comparing a Pop Warner football team to the Baltimore Ravens…

    Comment by Q — February 19, 2013 @ 9:18 pm | Reply

  2. […] public-policy concern – i.e., the lack of economic mobility in America.  As I noted in this blog a few weeks […]

    Pingback by The Singapore solution to economic inequality | Mike Kueber's Blog — March 18, 2013 @ 10:12 pm | Reply

  3. […] I’ve previously blogged, some colleges are beginning to look for something to replace their apparently doomed affirmative-action programs, and an article in the […]

    Pingback by More good news on socio-economic mobility | Mike Kueber's Blog — May 9, 2013 @ 1:38 pm | Reply

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