[Paleopsych] Brooks: The Sticky Ladder

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Thu Jan 27 18:37:41 UTC 2005

The Sticky Ladder
Opinion column by David Brooks, The New York Times, 5.1.25

[Letters to the editor are appended.]

    In his Inaugural Address President Bush embraced the grandest theme
    of American foreign policy - the advance of freedom around the world.
    Now that attention is turning to the State of the Union address, it
    would be nice if he would devote himself as passionately to the
    grandest theme of domestic policy - social mobility.

    The United States is a country based on the idea that a person's birth
    does not determine his or her destiny. Our favorite stories involve
    immigrants climbing from obscurity to success. Our amazing work ethic
    is predicated on the assumption that enterprise and effort lead to
    ascent. "I hold the value of life is to improve one's condition,"
    Lincoln declared.

    The problem is that in every generation conditions emerge that
    threaten to close down opportunity and retard social mobility. Each
    generation has to reopen the pathways to success.

    Today, for example, we may still believe American society is uniquely
    dynamic, but we're deceiving ourselves. European societies, which seem
    more class riven and less open, have just as much social mobility as
    the United States does.

    And there are some indications that it is becoming harder and harder
    for people to climb the ladder of success. The Economist magazine
    gathered much of the recent research on social mobility in America.
    The magazine concluded that the meritocracy is faltering: "Would-be
    Horatio Algers are finding it no easier to climb from rags to riches,
    while the children of the privileged have a greater chance of staying
    at the top of the social heap."

    Economists and sociologists do not all agree, but it does seem there
    is at least slightly less movement across income quintiles than there
    was a few decades ago. Sons' income levels correlate more closely to
    those of their fathers. The income levels of brothers also correlate
    more closely. That suggests that the family you were born into matters
    more and more to how you will fare in life. That's a problem because
    we are not supposed to have a hereditary class structure in this

    But we're developing one. In the information age, education matters
    more. In an age in which education matters more, family matters more,
    because as James Coleman established decades ago, family status shapes
    educational achievement.

    At the top end of society we have a mass upper-middle class. This is
    made up of highly educated people who move into highly educated
    neighborhoods and raise their kids in good schools with the children
    of other highly educated parents. These kids develop wonderful skills,
    get into good colleges (the median family income of a Harvard student
    is now $150,000), then go out and have their own children, who develop
    the same sorts of wonderful skills and who repeat the cycle all over

    In this way these highly educated elites produce a paradox - a
    hereditary meritocratic class.

    It becomes harder for middle-class kids to compete against members of
    the hypercharged educated class. Indeed, the middle-class areas become
    more socially isolated from the highly educated areas.

    And this is not even to speak of the children who grow up in
    neighborhoods in which more boys go to jail than college, in which
    marriage is not the norm before child-rearing, in which homes are
    often unstable, in which long-range planning is absurd, in which the
    social skills you need to achieve are not even passed down.

    In his State of the Union address, President Bush is no doubt going to
    talk about his vision of an ownership society. But homeownership or
    pension ownership is only part of a larger story. The larger story is
    the one Lincoln defined over a century ago, the idea that this nation
    should provide an open field and a fair chance so that all can compete
    in the race of life.

    Today that's again under threat, but this time from barriers that are
    different than the ones defined by socialists in the industrial age.
    Now, the upper class doesn't so much oppress the lower class. It just
    outperforms it generation after generation. Now the crucial inequality
    is not only finance capital, it's social capital. Now it is silly to
    make a distinction between economic policy and social policy.

    We can spend all we want on schools. But if families are disrupted, if
    the social environment is dysfunctional, bigger budgets won't help.

    President Bush spoke grandly and about foreign policy last Thursday,
    borrowing from Lincoln. Lincoln's other great cause was social
    mobility. That's worth embracing too.


    1. http://www.nytimes.com/top/opinion/editorialsandoped/oped/columnists/davidbrooks/index.html?inline=nyt-per

The New York Times > Opinion > Bound by Class, or Moving Up? (7 Letters)
January 27, 2005

Bound by Class, or Moving Up? (7 Letters)

    To the Editor:

    David Brooks is right to raise the alarm about declining social
    mobility ("The Sticky Ladder," column, Jan. 25).

    True, American college enrollments have boomed since World War II. In
    1940, about 5 percent of the population held college degrees, compared
    with more than 25 percent today. But while this greater access to
    education has opened pathways to the middle class for millions of
    Americans, it has also created new inequalities.

    As racial and economic segregation has declined, educational
    segregation has grown. Today, college graduates concentrate in a few
    places, while huge swaths of the country's interior and dozens of
    urban neighborhoods suffer a brain drain.

    The result is what Mr. Brooks aptly calls a "hereditary meritocratic
    class": Kids who grow up in neighborhoods filled with college
    graduates - and good schools - start life with a leg up; those raised
    in places abandoned by college graduates are at a disadvantage.

    Thurston Domina
    New York, Jan. 25, 2005

    To the Editor:

    Finally, a discussion of decreased social mobility that looks beyond
    schooling. As David Brooks notes: "We can spend all we want on
    schools. But if families are disrupted, if the social environment is
    dysfunctional, bigger budgets won't help."

    Advantaged children succeed not merely because their schools are
    better but because their medical care, preschool, after-school and
    summer experiences are better - and because their home lives are
    structured for success.

    Yet our current economic and social policies make life precarious in
    just those ways - for those who are poor and (increasingly) for those
    who are middle class. What should we do about this, Mr. Brooks?

    Eileen M. Foley
    Washington, Jan. 25, 2005

    To the Editor:

    A century ago, John Dewey noted that formal education is commonly used
    to reinforce class separation. Given the evidence presented by Mr.
    Brooks, this system has worked all too well.

    Indeed, as conservatives continue to slash programs intended to help
    working-class and poor students get the education Mr. Brooks considers
    so essential, social mobility may soon come to a halt.

    Ralph DiCarpio
    Round Top, N.Y., Jan. 25, 2005

    To the Editor:

    In reminding us of Abraham Lincoln's belief in the importance of
    social mobility, David Brooks could have also quoted a line from
    Lincoln's 1864 appearance before the Workingmen's Association of New
    York: "That some should be rich shows that others may become rich,
    and, hence, is just encouragement to industry and enterprise."

    How pertinent are those words - not only because they are fair but
    also because of the need for the economic growth and innovation that
    benefit all Americans.

    Mara D. H. Smith
    Lake Placid, N.Y., Jan. 26, 2005

    To the Editor:

    Here's one way to halt the erosion of social mobility: Raise taxes for
    those of us making at least $150,000 (the median income of Harvard
    parents, as Mr. Brooks points out). Then, less privileged teenagers
    can go to college on government grants, more underprivileged toddlers
    can go to Head Start and public school teachers can earn enough to
    make the profession attractive again.

    Next, strengthen the estate tax, as both a revenue source and a social
    leveler - so that my grandchildren's advantages will spring from their
    abilities, not their trust funds.

    Michael E. Goldberg
    New York, Jan. 25, 2005

    To the Editor:

    David Brooks writes that the meritocracy is faltering and that "we are
    not supposed to have a hereditary class structure in this country."

    In his State of the Union address, President Bush may talk about
    leaving no child behind, but his actions bespeak a different agenda.
    His tax cuts favor the wealthy, and his goal of eliminating all estate
    taxes will do much to institutionalize a hereditary upper class.

    Janice Gewirtz
    Mountain Lakes, N.J., Jan. 25, 2005

    To the Editor:

    Reading "The Sticky Ladder," one would assume that America had always
    been - until recently - a land where hard work and talent were
    rewarded with prosperity and social status.

    But it never was.

    Studies have long revealed that the best predictor of an individual's
    socioeconomic status was that of his or her parents. (The situation
    was less clear for women, who could "marry up," but the pattern still

    Although social mobility exists, most people remain in the class into
    which they were born. This is especially difficult for certain groups,
    like blacks, who for generations were deliberately kept on the
    ladder's bottom rungs. But it affects all Americans to some degree.

    The ladder of social mobility has always been "sticky." It's just
    getting stickier.

    Eric B. Lipps
    Staten Island, Jan. 25, 2005

More information about the paleopsych mailing list