Guest Editorials


Income mobility: the pink elephants in the ring

In case you missed it, there is a raging debate taking place between the intelligentsia and media of the Left and Right about the causes of the purported decline in America’s income mobility. As with almost all national issues nowadays, the Left and Right, like dazed prize fighters, retreat to their respective corners and see the problem through their puffy, narrow eyelids. The Left says that the causes are social Darwinism, unbridled capitalism, inherited wealth and privilege, low spending on education, blah, blah. The Right says that the causes are socialism, the regulatory state, high taxes, a lack of prayer in schools, blah, blah.
As usual, I say a pox on both of them for not seeing that both of them inhabit the same ring of statism that they have built around themselves and that keeps their thinking within narrow bounds. Once again, both are fighting over how to apply centralized state power against individuals to fix a real or imagined problem, without questioning the constitutionality, morality or philosophical basis of subjugating individuals to the state, the collective, or the fevers of the majority.

There is plenty of evidence of a lot of income mobility in the USA, but even if there were not much mobility, it’s an overblown issue when one considers that about half the world lives on a few dollars a day. But let’s suspend such deeper thoughts for the remainder of this commentary and go with the conventional non-wisdom that income mobility is declining and that this is a serious problem. Let’s look at some possible causes that are as obvious as pink elephants in a ring but not seen through the blurred vision of the Left and Right.

The first pink elephant is the USA’s high incarceration rate of 743 prisoners per 100,000 population. That’s only 57 less than the 800 per 100,000 that the Soviet Union had when its Gulags were still in operation prior to the Second World War. As a result of its high incarceration rate, the Land of Liberty has 24.3 percent of the world’s prison population but only 5 percent of the world’s population.

Naturally, convicts don’t earn much money, and ex-convicts don’t command high wages in the labor market.

But this fact isn’t taken into consideration when the USA’s income mobility is compared to such other countries as Norway, where the incarceration rate is 71 per 100,000, or about one-tenth the rate of the USA.

Nor are racial differences taken into account, although they are the second pink elephant in the room. Norway, for example, is 99 percent pink (pun intended). The USA, by contrast, is 80 percent pink, a percent that includes pink Hispanics.

The racial make-up of a country has an effect on several socioeconomic variables, especially incarceration rates. For example, the American incarceration rate is 4,479 per 100,000 population for non-Hispanic blacks and 1,822 for Hispanics who are either pink or black. In other words, non-Hispanic blacks have an incarceration rate that is an astonishing 63 times higher than Norway’s rate.

Both the Left and Right have contributed to the high incarceration rate, and that’s probably why neither of them has made it a campaign issue. The Right’s contribution comes from its unshakeable support of the War on Drugs and of mandatory sentencing. The Left’s contribution comes from its unshakeable support of the scores of welfare programs that have made men unnecessary as providers and thus superfluous in families. Data are clear that children raised by single moms are much more likely to end up in poverty or prison.
The last pink elephant is immigration. The numbers are squishy and impossible to confirm, but there are an estimated 15 million illegal immigrants in the USA from south of the border, most of whom are poorly educated and skilled, and many of whom, judging by crime statistics, are prone to criminal acts. Even so, they have tremendous upward income mobility, in the sense that their income can easily increase fivefold from what they earned in their mother countries by simply crossing the border. But that’s not the way that their income mobility is measured. It is measured by comparing their income mobility to native-born Americans – a very misleading comparison.

Still, even with their low skills and education, emigrants from Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America do climb the economic ladder, but not as fast as, let’s say, skilled German machinists and tool and die makers who immigrated to the USA in the early 20th century. Only a nincompoop or Marxist ideologue or race monger would expect otherwise.
Evidence of upward mobility is all around me. An example is my Mexican gardener. In the first year, he drove a beat-up pick-up truck and spoke only enough English to settle on a price. On weekends, his grade-school sons would accompany him to job sites. In the second year, he was driving a newer model used truck and his English had improved. By the fourth year, he was driving a new extended-cab truck with chrome wheels, and had two recent immigrants working for him. By the fifth year, he had a couple of trucks, more employees, and an established landscape maintenance company, complete with fancy letterhead and business cards. When my wife and I downsized to a smaller home, we offered him and his wife rooms of furniture, appliances and rugs. They gratefully accepted the items but said that they would donate most of them to their local church. They would guffaw at the notion that income mobility has stagnated in the USA.

Actually, what has stagnated in the United States is the ability to think outside of the Left-Right ring.

Mencken’s Ghost is the nom de plume of an Arizona writer who can be reached at