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Social Immobility: Climbing The Economic Ladder Is Harder In The U.S. Than In Most European Countries

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Is America the "land of opportunity"? Not so much.

A new report from the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) finds that social mobility between generations is dramatically lower in the U.S. than in many other developed countries.

So if you want your children to climb the socioeconomic ladder higher than you did, move to Canada.

The report finds the U.S. ranking well below Denmark, Australia, Norway, Finland, Canada, Sweden, Germany and Spain in terms of how freely citizens move up or down the social ladder. Only in Italy and Great Britain is the intensity of the relationship between individual and parental earnings even greater.

For instance, according to the OECD, 47 percent of the economic advantage that high-earning fathers in the United States have over low-earning fathers is transmitted to their sons, compare to, say, 17 percent in Australia and 19 percent in Canada.

Recent economic events may be increasing social mobility in the U.S. -- but only of the downward variety. Harvard Professor Elizabeth Warren, for example, argues that America's middle class had been eroding for 30 years even before the massive blows caused by the financial crisis. And with unemployment currently at astronomical levels, if there are no jobs for young people leaving school, the result could be long-term underemployment and, effectively, a lost generation.

According to the OECD report, the main cause of social immobility is educational opportunity. It turns out that America's public school system, rather than lifting children up, is instead holding them down.

One particularly effective way governments can help children from disadvantaged backgrounds improve their prospects, according to the report, is to increase the social mix within schools. Doing so "appears to boost performance of disadvantaged students without any apparent negative effects on overall performance." Early childhood education also helps a lot.

Another big factor in social mobility is inequality, the report finds. The greater a nation's inequality, the harder it is for its children to improve their lot.

That confirms findings by other researchers. "The way I usually put this is that when the rungs of the ladder are far apart, it becomes more difficult to climb the ladder," Brookings Institution economist Isabel Sawhill tells HuffPost. "Given that we have more inequality in the U.S. right now than at any time since the 1920s, we should be concerned that this may become a vicious cycle. Inequality in one generation may mean less opportunity for the next generation to get ahead and thus still more inequality in the future."

There are things governments can do to reduce inequality, the OECD points out. Progressive tax systems and social programs help reduce income inequalities between parents "so that their descendants' income would converge more quickly."

Perhaps more realistically for this country, given the current political climate, higher short-term unemployment benefits can reduce the effect of socioeconomic background on student achievement, the reports says.

Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA writes in an e-mail to HuffPost: "I think that researchers know about the poor mobility and millions of people are experiencing it -- but it is little discussed in a society in which both parties purport to represent the 'middle class' and no one is talking about the locked-in poor or the risk of downward mobility in public life."

As for the report's conclusions about the value of social mixing in schools, Orfield, a long time foe of school segregation, notes: "There has been such a relentless conservative attack on desegregation strategies, even those focusing on class,... that I think there has been very little discussion of peer group effects (except in college) for a long time. During that void, however, the research evidence has become much more powerful.

"People need to understand that schools are basically students and teachers interacting together and that if you have classmates who know very little, you won't learn from them, you may be distracted by them. And teachers teaching entire classes and schools with students who are not ready to learn at their grade level and require all kinds of individual tutoring will often leave as soon [as] they can so these schools get the least experienced and qualified teachers, which perpetuates the inequality."

Just last month, Orfield's center issued a report urging President Obama, a supporter of charter schools, to take into account the extreme segregation of black students in those schools and to devise policies that encourage diversity.

All in all, the OECD report is an ugly reality check for a country that has historically seen itself as uniquely rewarding of talent; as a place free of the sorts of rigid social structures that led so many generations of immigrants to leave Old Europe.

And the goal of reducing barriers to social mobility isn't just a moral imperative, it's an economic necessity, the OECD notes. "First, less mobile societies are more likely to waste or misallocate human skills and talents. Second, lack of equal opportunity may affect the motivation, effort and, ultimately, the productivity of citizens, with adverse effects on the overall efficiency and the growth potential of the economy."

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