Studies Show Republicans Don’t Understand What Produces Wealth in America

by Eric Zuesse, Strategic Culture:

A Pew poll published on May 2nd was headlined "Why people are rich and poor: Republicans and Democrats have very different views”, and it reported that, “Most Republicans link a person’s financial standing to their own hard work – or the lack of it. Most Democrats say that whether someone is rich or poor is more attributable to circumstances beyond their control.” The partisan difference on this issue was stark: “By about three-to-one (66% to 21%), Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say hard work, rather than a person’s advantages, has more to do with why someone is rich. By nearly as wide a margin, Democrats and Democratic leaners say the opposite: 60% say a person is rich because they had more advantages than others, while just 29% say it is because they have worked harder.”

So, I decided to look at the data regarding this question.

Pew itself had published evidence about this matter, on 7 August 2008, under the title "Upward Intergenerational Economic Mobility in the United States”, and noted in their summary, that:

• Men experience sharply higher rates of upward economic mobility than women.

• Blacks experience dramatically less upward economic mobility than whites.

• Rates of upward economic mobility are highest for white men, followed by white women, black men and, finally, black women.

For example, the report said, “women born to parents in the fourth and top quintiles [richest 40%] are more than twice as likely as men to fall to the bottom quintile [poorest 20%].” In other words: upper-income girls in America are “more than twice as likely as” upper-income boys are, to become poor adults. 

And: “Only 21 percent of [Blacks] who start in the top income quintile remain there as adults.” By contrast, for Whites, the latter figure is not “21 percent,” but instead “39 percent of the children in [White] families in the top income quintile remain in the top quintile” as adults. That’s almost twice the percentage (39% as compared to 21%) who stay rich as adults. Thus, rich-born Blacks have a much more precariousfinancial future (almost twice as precarious), than do rich-born Whites, and a generally similar situation pertains also for girls as compared to boys: the girls have a much more precarious financial situation than do the boys.

Of course, whether a person is or isn’t a male, or a White, are obviously “circumstances beyond their control.”

The linked 48-page report there, also titled “Upward Intergenerational Economic Mobility in the United States”, was written by Pew's Dr. Bhashkar Mazumder, who is one of the top experts concerning US economic mobility, and he notes that this study is the first ever to include a crucial set of data that’s called the “National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 cohort (NLSY)," which had been neglected by most previous studies "despite having several attractive features,” which Mazumder then listed. So, his was the most comprehensive study until at least 2008.

The results, from combining the NLSY data with other data, are:

Consistent with the previous findings of the Economic Mobility Project, the NLSY shows strong “stickiness” in both the bottom and top quintiles of the income distribution. A sizeable number of children who grew up in the bottom fifth remained there as adults, and the same was true of those who grew up in the top fifth. Overall, fewer than 40 percent of individuals who start in the bottom half of the income distribution move to the top half of the distribution as adults.

That last statement is quite striking. If, instead, that finding had been “Overall, 50 percent of individuals who start in the bottom half of the income distribution move to the top half of the distribution as adults,” it would be meaning: half of the individuals who start in the botton half, rise from the bottom half into the top half as adults. And, yet, even that doesn’t seem to be anything like the American dream (of being ‘the equal-opportunity society’), though it’s better than the reality. The actual finding was that “fewer than 40 percent of individuals who start in the bottom half” rise. On page 18 of the pdf is given the racial breakdown of this particular finding: “While 46 percent of whites who are born to parents below the median will surpass the median [the average], the comparable figure for blacks is only 22 percent.” So: even for Whites, the overall US is a somewhat classist society; but, for Blacks, US class-rigidity is outright depressing. And, both girls and Blacks face especailly precarious financial lifetime prospects, as compared to boys and to Whites.

Obviously, equal opportunity is a myth in the United States. This doesn’t come from me — it comes from the data. Republicans are up against the data, when they deny that “whether someone is rich or poor is more attributable to circumstances beyond their control” than it is to “their own hard work.” In fact, the data make obvious that the reality is the opposite of what Republicans are assuming — the data show that in order for an American child to have a rich adulthood, that child is going to have to work much harder if it’s a Black or a girl, than if it’s a White or a boy. This is America’s reality, stripping away the very-predominantly-Republican (but more generally the conservative) myth. The reasons why this is the case, aren’t necessarily entirely discrimination against Blacks and against girls; but, to explain such findings without acknowledging the fact that discrimination (prejudices, bigotries) constitutes a severe economic-and-justice problem in this country, and without acknowledging that this problem would need to be eliminated in order for the US to become anything like what Republicans think America is (i.e., an equal-opportunity society), would be extremely unreasonable, under the existing circumstances, as shown in the data.

A 23 August 2017 Quinnipiac poll asked Americans “How serious a problem do you think that prejudice against minority groups is in the United States today; a very serious problem, a somewhat serious problem, a not so serious problem, or not a problem at all?” 76% of Democrats said “Very serious.” 21% of Republicans did. 26% of Republicans said “Not so serious.” 11% of them even said “Not at all” serious. (Those same respective figures amongst Democrats were only 4% and 1%.) Republicans are thus starkly oblivious to the glaring inequality-of-opportunity problems in the United States; and, so, Republicans’ economic-and-justice proposals ignore an enormous part of American reality.

On 10 June 2014, Carter C. Price, at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, headlined "Patterns of economic mobility in the United States”. It’s a really terrific report (48 pages long in its linked pdf version), which summarizes lots of previous studies related to this question. For example, the opening of this report shows that the physical location where a given person lives within the US is a crucial determinant of that individual’s likelihood of being able to draw a higher annual income than that person’s parents did. Some parts in the US have remarkably low class-rigidity, whereas other US regions have stunningly high class-rigidity, more like a caste system than like any sort of equality-of-opportunity or democracy. 

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