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No, cancel Yes, report it Thanks! And for most of this period, a rising tide really did lift most boats. Politicians from both parties embraced the national ethos that anyone could get ahead through hard work and gradually, if imperfectly, made it accessible to immigrants, non-whites, women, the disabled, and others who had historically been excluded from the promise of American life.

With the US Federal Reserve having signalled its willingness to do what was necessary to rein in inflation, taxes were cut, and America was fundamentally transformed from a country of savers into one of borrowers. In the ensuing decades, financial leverage drove growth onward, but the American Dream was living on borrowed time. Americans were going into debt to buy foreign goods, and the producers of those goods were buying US government debt, thereby keeping interest rates low.

Though Americans felt prosperous, the real economy was growing at only half its previous rate, and median wages were plateauing. Meanwhile, the Fed busied itself trying to put out periodic fires in the financial markets. Yet it inadvertently made the problem of rising inequality even worse. By , its policies had artificially expanded financial markets, where assets are held largely by the wealthy, to three times the size of the real economy. The American Dream works only when growth is broadly shared and structural impediments to advancement are scarce.

Neither is true today. Moreover, the innovations that drove growth in manufacturing employment and upward mobility in the past have been superseded by digital technologies. For all their convenience, the Amazons and Ubers of the digital economy are destroying working-class jobs and driving down wages. Nor can the link be explained by inherited intelligence.

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The District of Columbia, for instance, could pour hundreds of millions of dollars into upgrading school infrastructure and raising per-student spending as it has in recent years. But if the city's schools do nothing to help develop these essential character traits in their students, they are unlikely to see increased achievement. A much better approach is exemplified by the city's charter schools, the most successful of which focus intensely on character education.

Part of why charters have proved so successful is that they are built on the premise that children who can develop beneficial character traits between birth and high school are more likely to transition well into college and the work force. Innovative and effective charter schools like the Knowledge Is Power Program also known as KIPP recognize this link, and are in fact working closely with the colleges favored by their students to identify the specific traits that contribute most to completing a degree. Still, even a young person with high academic potential and strong personal traits may find it difficult to attain a bachelor's degree if college is far too expensive, or if the school's requirements do not match his learning needs and circumstances.

A four-year, full-time program with an on-campus residency requirement, for instance, is not an option for a student who must work and live at home to help support his parents. These could soon mean sharply lower tuition and more customized higher education assuming accreditation and other government regulations do not obstruct innovation.


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From free online university courses to inner-city charter schools, these initiatives have emerged from the bottom up. They are the products of civil society and the private economy, not massive federal interventions. The third crucial form of capital associated with economic mobility is, not surprisingly, money. The children of parents whose wealth is above the national average tend to accumulate more wealth themselves and move higher up the economic ladder.

It is not hard to see why savings are helpful to mobility.

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For one thing, adequate savings can prevent a setback, such as losing a job or encountering unanticipated bills, from becoming a catastrophe. In addition, savings allow people to take advantage of opportunities for economic mobility, such as moving to a new neighborhood or buying a car in order to take a better job. In a review of multiple studies, University of Pittsburgh professor William Elliott has found that forming the habit of saving regularly early in life, even in small amounts, is connected with later success in completing college.

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Interestingly, the impact of the saving habit is most pronounced for children from low- to moderate-income households. Still, lower-income households are less inclined to save even modest sums today than they were in the past. The obvious explanation would seem to be a lack of disposable family income, but it turns out that other factors are at play. For example, among households with similarly low incomes, there are wide differences in the rates of saving among some social and ethnic groups. Modest-income Asian-Americans and whites, for instance, are much more likely to enroll in k plans than are African-Americans or Hispanics with similar incomes.

What Would It Take to Dramatically Increase Mobility from Poverty?

Culture and habit seem to matter greatly. Indeed, savings rates are consistently higher in many other countries. So even households in the lower quintiles often have the capacity to save at least modestly, but they lack the discipline or desire to do so. This absence of good financial habits has many probable causes. One is the growing use of credit cards though this is less of an issue among the poorest households. A more serious factor is the spread of lotteries in recent decades, as well as the growth of other anti-thrift institutions.

Payday lenders now outnumber McDonald's franchises in four of the five most populous states. Another factor is the increase over time in the payroll-tax rates for Social Security and Medicare. Even if workers' earnings place them below the threshold for paying federal income taxes, they nevertheless see more and more of their paychecks going to what are widely perceived as "savings" programs. But Social Security and Medicare do not create nest eggs for recipients, and the effective Social Security rate of return is low and declining.

For some groups with relatively low life expectancies, such as African-American males, the return on Social Security is negative. Moreover, the act of saving is invisible, in the sense that, unlike going to church or volunteering in an association, people in a community don't know who is saving and who isn't. This invisibility means that there is little or no social inducement to save. Interestingly, some research indicates that merely informing low-income households about what others are saving actually increases each household's savings.

Unfortunately, savings clubs have largely disappeared in schools and local associations; we rarely encounter examples like the savings program this author participated in as an elementary-school student in s Britain, where students lined up to have their "surplus" pocket money duly registered and invested by the teacher.

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Given these circumstances, how might we change the culture of savings in lower-income households? How might we build financial capital that could complement social and human capital and thereby increase mobility? Like the other forms of capital critical to mobility, much turns on cultural factors that government can influence only at the margins. This has led some policymakers to argue for special tax credits for saving, federal matches for low-income savers, and other inducements. Particularly helpful would be proposals to create true savings accounts within the Social Security system by earmarking some of the payroll tax for that purpose, rather than simply continuing to issue full retirement annuities.

Our improved understanding of behavioral economics, too, should play a role. People face nearly infinite options for what to do with their money; making savings the default, for instance, uses inertia positively. Employing such behavioral economics could even help us redirect the lottery player's gambling instinct to yield a potentially huge increase in savings among low-income households. To make responsible saving more exciting, in , the British government sponsored an organization to create a new savings vehicle called "Premium Bonds. There is no return on invested principal, just the chance to win a prize.

The result?


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Recently, a similar if more modest program was introduced in the United States. Unfortunately, it is not now possible to spread these savings vehicles more widely: In most states, it is illegal to link prizes to saved money.

Lawmakers, it seems, prefer to require people to throw their money away in order to reap any winnings. But if a true culture of saving is to be revived, the change will most likely come from the institutions of civil society. These organizations, especially those with a local focus, can help produce some of the peer influence once generated by the old savings clubs. For example, in many Asian-immigrant communities, revolving loan funds allow for pooled savings and serve as a source of small-business capital. Churches in the African-American community have also become involved, in many ways reviving the religious social-welfare and financial institutions that used to be the hallmark of that community.

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In so doing, he has provided yet one more example of how the best solutions to our economic-mobility problems will come not from government, but from the actions of concerned citizens. The research on economic mobility underscores the importance of culture in providing the essential infrastructure for economic growth. And that deterioration has been caused, in no small part, by the corrosive effects of government programs designed to help the poor achieve the American Dream.

The solutions to our problems of mobility are therefore not to be found in more government. Income redistribution and new federal programs designed to replace dwindling social capital with greater intervention by the state are not the answers. At best, they will only paper over deeper problems by spending money the country doesn't have. As Niall Ferguson has remarked reflecting on Tocqueville , "The notion that you could achieve greater social cohesion by increasing the power of the state at the expense of civil society [is] a great illusion.

It requires local and national leaders to call for a reaffirmation of the virtues of industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity in the communities from which they have been disappearing. Forgot password? Can the American Dream Be Saved? Stuart M. Previous Article. Regaining America's Balance Tim Kane. Next Article.