What is Limiting America’s Economic Mobility?

Income inequality

Countries with bigger income differences tend to have much lower economic mobility. Although there is more flexibility in the middle, those at the top can maintain their wealth and status while those at the bottom find it difficult to climb up the income ladder. The inter-generational correlation between parent’s and child’s income is high in the United States, meaning that rich parents tend to have children who are also rich, and poor parents tend to have children who stay poor.

Geographical segregation

Greater social distances become translated into greater geographical segregation between rich and poor in more unequal societies, and more unequal cities were also more economically segregated. The concentration of poor people in poor areas restrains their employment opportunities and elevates all kinds of stresses, deprivation and difficulty–ranging from increased commuting times for those who have to leave deprived communities to find work elsewhere, to increased risk of traffic accidents, worse schools, low levels of services, exposure to gang violence, pollution and so on. Drawbacks as such in turn impacts their health outcomes and their ability to move upwards economically in the country.

Class prejudice

Director of Alameda County Public Health Department, Dr. Anthony Iton, comments: “If that environment is giving you cues that you are not valuable, that you have very little prospect for a good future, that starts to build up and you internalize that devaluation.” Department Chair of Family Medicine in John A. Burns School of Medicine, Dr. Neal Palafox, states that poverty creates a dynamic in individuals where they feel they have no control over their lives or things occurring in their lives. If individuals feel that the environment controls them rather than the other way around, it is when they stop believing they can better their own situation; it is when their self-confidence turns into a sense of inferiority that interferes with their desire to improve their economic status.

Current U.S. economic and labor policies stack the deck against working families. The federal minimum wage has been stagnant since the 1970s. We now work longer hours than any other industrialized nation in the world, even Japan, but we do not seem to be able to live and see the day when our minimum wage would be raised to over $16.50/hour in step with productivity growth. In a family where both partners work different shifts nearly every day—especially with one of them (or both) being in school in the meantime—couples can hardly find time to bond with each other. They would oftentimes neglect that they have a partner to attend to, which makes their relationship a bumpy ride.

Not only do working-class and middle-class families struggle to make ends meet, they also suffer from social isolation due to their massive amount of workload and long hours that they cannot spare much leisure time to hang out with their families and friends, which is not doing their overall well-beings any favor. This is particularly true in immigrant families in which parents have to work extra hard to make up for their economic disadvantages and to create a future for their children.

To expand economic mobility for the vast majority of Americans, one thing we need is policymakers of all races and ethnicities to speak out against intolerance and embrace publicly the goal of building inclusive communities, which can be done with no new resources at all. Only when we come together, can we work for the betterment of ourselves and those like us, as well as ultimately reduce income and health inequities.

This article was written by Mildred D. Li, a writer for dusk magazine. 

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