The Downward Path of Upward Mobility

November 17, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Fareed Zakaria

This week’s Washington Post-ABC News poll reveals what we have all sensed, that most Americans are increasingly concerned about the growing gap between rich and poor in this country. The issue quickly divides along partisan lines, as do so many, with liberals urging government to do more to reduce this gap and conservatives opposing such measures. (Overall, a significant majority does favor government action.)

But on an issue even more significant than income inequality, there does appear to be bipartisan agreement: the importance of social mobility. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) accurately noted that “upward mobility from the bottom is the crux of the American promise.”

Some believe we’re still doing fine. In his address to the Heritage Foundation last month, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) declared, “Class is not a fixed designation in this country. We are an upwardly mobile society with a lot of movement between income groups.” Ryan contrasted social mobility in the United States with that in Europe, where “top-heavy welfare states have replaced the traditional aristocracies, and masses of the long-term unemployed are locked into the new lower class.”

In fact, over the past decade, growing evidence shows pretty conclusively that social mobility has stalled in this country. Last week, Time magazine’s cover asked, “Can You Still Move Up in America?”
The answer, citing a series of academic studies was, no; not as much as you could in the past and — most devastatingly — not as much as you can in Europe.

The most comprehensive comparative study, done last year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, found that “upward mobility from the bottom” — Daniels’s definition — was significantly lower in the United States than in most major European countries, including Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark.

Another study, by the Institute for the Study of Labor in Germany in 2006, uses other metrics and concludes that “the U.S. appears to be exceptional in having less rather than more upward mobility.”

A 2010 Economic Mobility Project study found that in almost every respect, the United States has a more rigid socioeconomic class structure than Canada. More than a quarter of U.S. sons of top-earning fathers remain in the top tenth of earners as adults, compared to 18 percent of similarly situated Canadian sons. U.S. sons of fathers in the bottom tenth of earners are more likely to remain in the bottom tenth of earners as adults than are Canadian sons (22 percent vs. 16 percent). And U.S. sons of fathers in the bottom third of earnings distribution are less likely to make it into the top half as adults than are sons of low-earning Canadian fathers.

Surveying all the evidence, Scott Winship, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, concludes in this week’s National Review: “What is clear is that in at least one regard American mobility is exceptional. . . .

[W]here we stand out is our limited upward mobility from the bottom.”

When you think about it, these results should not be so surprising.

European countries, perhaps haunted by their past as class-ridden societies, have made serious investments to create equality of opportunity for all. They typically have extremely good childhood health and nutrition programs, and they have far better public education systems than the United States does. As a result, poor children compete on a more equal footing against the rich.

In the United States, however, if you are born into poverty, you are highly likely to have malnutrition, childhood sicknesses and a bad education. The dirty little secret about the U.S. welfare state is that it spends very little on the poor — who don’t vote much — lavishing attention instead on the middle class. The result is clear. A student interviewed by Opportunity Nation, a bipartisan group founded to address these issues, put it succinctly, “The ZIP code you’re born in shouldn’t determine your destiny, but too often it does.”

Tackling income inequality is a very difficult challenge. Tax increases on the rich will do relatively little to change the basic trend, which is fueled by globalization, technology and the increasing gains conferred by education. (Getting back to the 1990 levels of income distribution in the United States, for example, would mean hundreds of billions of dollars of redistribution every year, which is exponentially larger than the biggest tax hikes anyone is proposing.)

But we do know how to create social mobility — because we used to do it. In addition, we can learn from those countries that do it so well, particularly in Northern Europe and Canada. The ingredients are obvious: decent health care and nutrition for children, good public education, high-quality infrastructure — including broadband Internet — to connect all regions and all people to market opportunities, and a flexible and competitive free economy. That will get America moving again — and all Americans moving again.

comments@fareedzakaria.com

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Islam in the Polls: Muslims Can Change Negative Views with Deeds

April 24, 2006 by · Leave a Comment 

Islam in the Polls: Muslims Can Change Negative Views With Deeds
By Hasan Zillur Rahim, Apr 17, 2006
Editor’s Note: Recent polls show that increasing numbers of Americans hold negative views of Islam. That isn’t surprising, writes New America Media contributor Hasan Rahim, considering which Muslims get all the press. Rahim writes on Islamic issues and has been an editor of Iqra, a national Islamic magazine.
SAN FRANCISCO—Americans know more about Islam than ever before — and they don’t like what they see.
A new CBS News poll conducted in early April suggests that 45 percent of Americans hold negative views of Islam, compared to 33 percent in the tense aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in March also showed a growing number of Americans (46 percent) expressing unfavorable opinions of Islam.
The situation has become so bleak that Muslim religious leaders sought the help of a Nobel Laureate to stem this rising tide of negativity. The Dalai Lama, 71, led leaders from Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Native American traditions at “A Gathering of Hearts Illuminating Compassion” conference in San Francisco recently. The leaders appealed to Americans not to equate Islam with terrorism.
What makes these polls so scary for Muslims is that the queried Americans confirmed that they were better informed about Islam now than they were five years ago.
In other words, despite all the mosque open houses, outreach and interfaith programs, books and articles on Islam, the idea that increased knowledge will lead to greater tolerance toward Islam and Muslims has become more elusive than ever.
Is there a contradiction here? Not really, if you think about it.
Consider the situation from the point of view of an average American.
During the week of April 10-16 alone (a remarkable convergence of Passover, Easter and the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday), the average American learned that Zacarias Moussaoui, the Al Qaeda terrorist, had “no regrets, no remorse” for the nearly 3,000 people killed on Sept. 11, 2001.
There is the consistent horror of Sunnis and Shias dismembering each other in Iraq and Pakistan, always when the gathering is large, as during the Friday congregational prayers.
There is also the daily genocide that the Muslim janjaweed militia wages against the indigenous tribes of Darfur, Sudan, most of whom are also Muslims but of darker skins.
Yes, most Muslims are as outraged by these horrors as the average American in question. But isn’t it too much to expect that this typical American will continue to be reassured by our words (the fanatics are not of us and we are not of them, and besides, every faith has its fanatics) while the horrific deeds continue unabated?
He sees what Muslims are doing to Muslims, how some of them are spewing murderous hatred for the West, and while he may hold his own country responsible for the catastrophe in Iraq, it does not diminish his growing conviction that Muslims are disproportionately prone to violence. Talk of peace and harmony can only go so far; he is more persuaded by the grim reality on the ground.
In the same week, however, quiet (and recurring) events of different sorts were taking place throughout America, far removed from the gaze of the mainstream media.
In a crime-infested neighborhood in East Oakland, Calif., for example, two Muslims stand at a street corner, giving out free popcorn and cotton candy to passersby. Their only goal is to spread some cheer and hope to their down-trodden neighbors. With help from their activist friends from the nearby mosque Masjid Al-Islam, they host year-round soup kitchens for the poor and the hungry.
We also learn that Habibe Husain, founder of Rahima Foundation, has received the Human Relations award of California’s Santa Clara County. Her organization distributes clothes, food and other necessities to the less fortunate residents of Silicon Valley and adjoining areas since 1993.
In cities like Sacramento, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Tampa Bay and Atlanta, local Muslim doctors provide poor and uninsured residents with free medical care. And through organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Muslims also volunteer their time and skills to build homes for the homeless.
Is average American aware of these “events?” Perhaps not. After all, we Muslims providing humanitarian services are doing so not to enhance our standing in the polls, but as a religious calling to help the less fortunate.
But these acts do teach us an important lesson. While it is undeniable that there is a need to educate Americans about Islam and Muslims, perhaps our efforts will go further if more of us engaged in deeds rather than words.
Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, an act of charity is worth a thousand sermons. So here’s a humble suggestion to my fellow American Muslims: Let’s cut down on the number of seminars and conferences at our local mosques by about half, and replace them with charitable acts that help the homeless, the needy and the destitute. That will require more effort than writing a check or listening to an Imam expound on the same tired topic. But in the end, it will make us better Muslims.
Perhaps it will even improve our standing in the eyes of our fellow Americans.