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Moving On Up More Difficult In America


Now, the economy is likely to be the top issue at tonight's debate in Iowa, and recapturing the American dream has been a persistent theme on the campaign trail. But recent evidence suggests it may be harder to attain. A new study from the Pew Research Center suggests that for the first time, since the end of the Second World War, it is now easier to climb up the economic ladder in Europe and Canada than it is in the U.S. We spoke with Erin Currier with the Pew Charitable Trust's Economic Mobility Project, who led the study.

ERIN CURRIER: We have done two public opinion polls, one in 2009 and one just a few months ago. And in both cases, we found that Americans absolutely believe in this idea of American exceptionalism, that the United States is a country that promotes opportunity, that hard work and ambition are what matters the most for getting ahead. And the truth is the data doesn't support this idea that we as a nation have about ourselves.

RAZ: How so?

CURRIER: What we found is that on a range of measures, kids in the United States look worse than kids in other countries.

RAZ: Look worse?

CURRIER: They're more likely to be at the bottom of the pile if their parents had low socioeconomic status or at the top of the pile if their parents had high socioeconomic status than any other country investigated.

RAZ: So going back to this poll that you guys conducted earlier this year that chose - I think it was something like 70 percent of Americans believe that they can climb up the socioeconomic ladder, what we commonly call the American dream - I mean, you're suggesting that the case may be that it's easier to do in Europe.

CURRIER: The data shows that it's easier to do in Europe in the sense that in the United States, kids are really likely to look like their parents, particularly at the ends of the income distribution. If your parents were in the bottom, you're highly likely to be in the bottom yourself. If your parents were in the top, you're highly likely to be in the top. And that stickiness on the ends is not seen as strongly in Europe.

RAZ: What do we think are the reasons behind that?

CURRIER: Well, this study shows that, you know, we would expect that parents' educational attainment and their socioeconomic status would matter for children's educational attainment as well.

RAZ: It would predict where they might end up.

CURRIER: Exactly. But if it was just the transmission of advantage, we would see that as a similar gap across countries. And the fact that there are differences points to environmental factors mattering, so policies in institutions that people interact with throughout their lives. The bottom line is that the United States tends to look the worst on all of these measures.

RAZ: The worst, compared to - we're talking about U.K., France, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Canada, the worst.

Mm-hmm. Exactly.

Help me visualize what this means in terms of a side-by-side comparison. Say you've got two children born to poorly educated parents; one is American, one is, let's say, in France. What do we know about each of their chances of moving up the socioeconomic ladder?

CURRIER: Well, France is such a great example. There is a really interesting and powerful case study done as part of this book, which shows that universal pre-K has a huge impact on kids' earning potential as adults. In France, people who had two or more years of pre-K saw significant increases in their monthly wages, and that has a difference in their mobility prospects over time. So when you look at the United States and you compare a low-income child here to a low-income child in France, we might be giving them less of a good shot at equality of opportunity.

RAZ: That's Erin Currier. She directs the Economic Mobility Project at the Pew Center on the States, talking about new research that suggests economic mobility is greater in Europe today than it is in the United States. Erin Currier, thank you.

CURRIER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.