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Opportunity is for sale in U.S., Stanford researcher says

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David Grusky
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Stanford professor David Grusky delivers the keynote lecture at the Social Mobility in an Unequal World Conference on April 20.

A child born into the average American household in 1940 had a 92 percent chance of making more money at age 30 than his or her parents did at the same age. For children born in 1980, the percentage who earned more than their parents did at the same age drops to 50 percent, said David Grusky, the Barbara Kimball Browning Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University.

Giving the keynote lecture for the Social Mobility in an Unequal World Conference on April 20, Grusky’s talk, “Social Mobility in an Unequal World,” discussed trends in absolute mobility rates, defined as the fraction of children who earn more than their parents did at the same age.

Using Census data, the Current Population Survey and de-identified tax records, Grusky carried out this research with colleagues at Stanford, Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley.

“When we began this research, I expected that we would find a decline in rates of absolute mobility, but I never anticipated that it would be such a precipitous decline,” Grusky said. Absolute mobility fell across all 50 states between the 1940 and 1980 cohorts for both sons and daughters.

This research was presented as part of a larger talk on the health of the American dream. The prognosis, Grusky argues, is not good. We live in a country in which “opportunity is for sale,” he said, with well-off parents buying high-quality child care, good neighborhoods and excellent schools for their children, thus tilting the chances in their favor.

There are many examples of what Grusky terms the “commodification of opportunity.” However, the most obvious one is that access to good schools often depends on being able to afford to live in well-off neighborhoods. Although we call them public schools, they are in fact only available to parents with money, he said.

In terms of policy, Grusky sees two approaches the U.S. can take. One option is redistribution: We can give in to the “commodification of everything” and provide poor families with the money needed to buy opportunities for their children. The other option is to resist commodification, as Denmark, Norway and Finland have done, by expanding public goods like high-quality schooling.

“We are at a crossroads in terms of the approach we take,” Grusky said. “If we want all of our children to have a fair shot at getting ahead, we can either give all parents the means to purchase opportunities for their children or we can take opportunity out of the market.”

Grusky’s talk was based in part on “The fading American dream: Trends in absolute income mobility since 1940,” published in Science April 28.

Currently director of the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, Grusky was the founding director of Cornell’s Center for the Study of Inequality, headed by Kim Weeden, professor of sociology.

More than 200 people attended the lecture, organized by CSI and supported by The Atlantic Philanthropies.

Lori Sonken is the staff writer for the Institute for the Social Sciences.

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