[Marxism] Income mobility in the US (was: millionaire mullahs)

Mike Friedman mikedf at amnh.org
Sun Aug 13 18:47:15 MDT 2006

Sayan, you might want to look at the July-August issue of Monthly Review
(http://www.monthlyreview.org/0706jbf.htm). It provides a more useful
analysis of the issue of so-called "upward mobility" in the United States
than the study you mentioned. You must realize that tax brackets are meant
to conceal more than they reveal. Then you have factors such as the one
you mentioned -- the predominance of youth in the lowest tax bracket. Of
course, the worst-off don't even file taxes. But, I'll quote parts of the
introductory chapter by John Bellamy Foster, since it eloquently addresses
your concern:

"[...] a host of new statistical studies that have demonstrated that
intergenerational class mobility in the United States is far below what
was previously supposed, and that the United States is a more class-bound
society than its major Western European counterparts, with the exception
of Britain."


"As Paul Sweezy once observed, “self-reproduction is an essential
characteristic of a class as distinct from a mere stratum.”2 What is clear
from recent data is that the upper classes in the United States are
extremely effective in reproducing themselves—to a degree that invites no
obvious historical comparison in modern capitalist history."


"The fact that the rich are getting both relatively and absolutely richer,
and the poor are getting relatively (if not absolutely) poorer, in the
United States today is abundantly clear to all—although the true extent of
this trend defies the imagination. Over the years 1950 to 1970, for each
additional dollar made by those in the bottom 90 percent of income
earners, those in the top 0.01 percent received an additional $162. In
contrast, from 1990 to 2002, for every added dollar made by those in the
bottom 90 percent, those in the uppermost 0.01 percent (today around
14,000 households) made an additional $18,000."

"Wealth is always far more unevenly divided than income. In 2001 the top 1
percent of wealth holders accounted for 33 percent of all net worth in the
United States, twice the total net worth of the bottom 80 percent of the
population. Measured in terms of financial wealth (which excludes equity
in owner-occupied houses), the top 1 percent in 2001 owned more than four
times as much as the bottom 80 percent of the population. Between 1983 and
2001, this same top 1 percent grabbed 28 percent of the rise in national
income, 33 percent of the total gain in net worth, and 52 percent of the
overall growth in financial worth."

"Nevertheless, a considerable portion of the population still seems
willing to accept substantial differentials in economic rewards on the
assumption that these represent returns to merit and that all children
have a fighting chance to rise to the top. The United States, the received
wisdom tells us, is still the “land of opportunity.” The new data on class
mobility, however, indicate that this is far from the case and that the
barriers separating classes are hardening."

I would note, in passing, that statistics such as the ones you cited are
used precisely to bolster the illusion of upward mobility among that
"considerable portion of the population [that] still seems willing to
accept" the myth of merit-based inequality cited in  the above paragraph.
But, recent polls and mainstream articles (some have been posted on
Marxmail) have complained that working people, by and large no longer have
the expectation that their children will fare better than they have.

Class inequality, as Paul Sweezy, quoted in the above article, notes, is
not only or even predominantly a function of income. While he doesn't
mention racism, sexism, citizenship, etc., as factors limiting upward
mobility, they are and have been historically major factors. One thing to
keep in mind is that the working class is increasingly composed of people
who face other forms of oppression, particularly racism.

I won't even attempt to address your central concern, which is why the
U.S. working class hasn't taken up socialism (or made the revolution),
except to say that it is far more complex and should be de-linked from the
(now discredited) idea of upward-mobility.

Michael Friedman
Ph.D. Candidate in Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Behavior
City University of New York

Molecular Systematics Laboratory
Department of Invertebrate Zoology
American Museum of Natural History
79th Street and Central Park West
New York, NY 10024

Office: 212-313-8721

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