Sometimes, the media comes at a subject like a group of proverbial blind men trying to describe an elephant.
The Pew Charitable Trusts released a report Tuesday on the economic mobility of Americans across generations. It contains a wealth of data on the state of the American Dream, defined as the ability to go from rags to riches, or from a log cabin to the White House.
Those are images that have helped define a nation of immigrants. However, the current state of that dream looks a bit like a nightmare.
A lot of publications focused on the good news — the overwhelming majority of people today — 84 percent — are richer than their parents were at the same age, even when adjusted for inflation.
Others led with the report's more sober findings that, despite getting richer, our ability to move up and down the rungs of society's income ladder is severely limited. If you define the American dream as the ability to pull yourself up through hard work alone, you'll have trouble getting to sleep. Only 4 percent of those in this generation who were raised in the bottom income quintile were able to rise to the very top as adults.
What is sobering is that the trip isn't that far. The upper quintile begins at $81,700 per year.
But few who reported on the study seemed willing to look at the bigger questions it raised, including some the report itself didn't address.
The first of these is: What good was the "war on poverty" started during the Lyndon Johnson administration?
Don't think that war ended with the '60s, or that it ebbed and flowed during Republican and Democratic administrations.
In congressional testimony last month, Ron Haskins, co-director of the Brookings Institute's center on children and families, noted how Washington has dramatically increased spending on anti-poverty programs, by about $500 billion adjusted for inflation, between 1980 and 2011. The spending for each person in poverty jumped from $4,300 to $13,000 during that same time period.
And for what? So poor people today would have an even tougher time climbing up the ladder than in the '60s? Do politicians ever stop to examine the record to see where all this spending has gotten us?
The second question, also not covered in the report, concerns the role marriage plays in income. Here there is little room for debate. Data from the Census Bureau shows that the poverty rate among married couples with children in 2009 was 9.6 percent. Among women raising children on their own, it was 39.9 percent.
Children under 5 in households headed by single moms had a 55 percent poverty rate.
The third question was covered in the report. It has to do with education. The more you have, the better chance you have of rising up.
Of those raised in the bottom income quintile who earned a four-year degree, only 10 percent stayed there.
Haskins put it in stark terms. "Young people," he said, "can virtually assure that they and their families will avoid poverty if they follow three elementary rules for success – complete at least a high school education, work full time, and wait until age 21 and get married before having a baby."
Complete college, as the Pew report makes clear, and the picture gets much better.
The Pew study lays bare some stark realities a lot of Americans may want to avoid discussing. It is indeed a concern that people on the bottom rung of the income ladder have so little chance to move up.
It's also disturbing to note the report's findings on race. Black Americans have an even tougher time moving up, and have much larger chance of moving down.
If nothing else, the American dream has stood as a morality lesson about the value of hard work and initiative. If those on the bottom rung lose faith in that dream, it can create a disillusioned, cynical class of people who feel powerless.
But real solutions require public officials of all stripes to push policies that foster marriage and education, and that end or replace programs proven to be worthless. Don't hold your breath.
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