Barriers to Mobility Are Empirical Realities - by Evan Baker

posted Jun 1, 2017, 6:58 AM by Daniel Laurison

The myth that “anyone can do whatever they want to do” in the United States, as stated by Professor Laurison’s dentist, does not stand up to the empirical realities of American society and the American economy. While certainly there is social and class mobility present in US society, this is hardly a universal rule. Profound barriers and obstacles exist in this country that limit the choices and paths people can take in life. And these barriers and obstacles are not just attitudes. Various socioeconomic structures in the United States function in a way that limits people’s life choices and produces a stratified society.

First of all, the concept the America is an exceptionally mobile society in comparison to other nations is not an accurate assertion. In fact, according to the paper “Cross-Country Rankings in Intergenerational Mobility”, in terms of income mobility, of the twelve countries ranked which include the US, Great Britain, Brazil, Australia, Canada, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, France, Italy, and Finland, the United States ranked second to last and only had more registered income elasticity than Brazil. A society in which people can “do whatever they want” and get whatever jobs or positions they want to get would certainly rank much higher among a list of fellow developed nations in income mobility and definitely shouldn't be second to last.  

Beyond income mobility, profound inequalities exist in our society that cannot just be chalked up to millions of people not making the right decisions. For example the authors of the book Inequality by Design show that even if all adults had the same IQ scores, roughly 90% to 95% of the income inequality currently present in society would still exist. Again, one might think that if mobility in society was based on willpower, then IQ would have a greater effect on which jobs people got and if this is not the case, then there must be other factors at play in the creation of social stratification. Furthermore the authors point out that while welfare programs do exist for many low income families, middle class and upper class families are actually more heavily subsidized by the federal government through benefits given to businesses, homeowners, parents with children in college, and other tax and policy choices that give a lot of federal money to families that already wealthy. What this means is that materially, some families which need money in order to achieve higher standards of living to do not receive money to fulfill that capacity while those already well off receive subsidies to continue living their lifestyles. Inequality by Design lays bare these and other factors which materially enable some to live good lives and prevent other from reaching those lifestyles.  

For many people of color in this country, there were also legal barriers in place so as to physically and materially prevent them from doing “whatever they want to do”. As laid out by the work of Loic Wacquant, Ta-Nehisi Coates and countless others, African Americans and other non-white groups faced and continue to face legal discrimination in this country that drastically limit their choices in life. In the Jim Crow South, African Americans were robbed of the ballot, kept in intricate systems of debt peonage, and arrested en masse under laws designed to create ready supplies of cheap incarcerated labor. In the North and in much of the country to this day, African Americans had the capacity to get cheap mortgages, good loans, and other financial services taken away from them, first by a system of legalized “red-lining” which legally made Black neighborhoods financially untrustworthy, and now by a system of  informal discrimination by which banks and financial officers continue to prevent many communities of color form having access to the services necessary for them to live their lives and be upwardly mobile. These varied system functioned as impediments to a myriad of life choices that should have otherwise been available to African Americans and people of color in the United States.

Despite what the dentist might think, the choices available to people and the trajectories of their lives are not just determined by their will and want to do fulfill their dreams and needs. On the contrary, a vast series of obstacles and obstruction exist in our society that limit the choices available to people and often time force them into jobs and situations they might otherwise have avoided or not been in.