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Oh dear, oh dear, pity poor Americans, because, you see, the system is rigged against the vast majority who were not born filthy rich. No less an authority than presidential candidate John Edwards says so, and he says so firmly.
Others chime in, telling us that the poor just keep getting poorer and that most of us are frozen in place in ever-worsening circumstances. Upward mobility is done for, they say. The middle class is disappearing. You don’t believe it? Have you listened to Lou Dobbs on TV lately?
Wait a second, what is this I am reading — that a couple of studies, one by the government, the other by a prestigious private foundation, thoroughly demonstrate this supposed wisdom from a whole long list of such politicians, professional commentators and other assorted flap-jaws is nothing short of demagogic, fraudulent, exploitative balderdash?
Goodness, how startling a lesson it is to learn first from a Wall Street Journal editorial about a Treasury Department probe of 96,700 income tax returns from people 25 and over. In tracking these from 1996 to 2005, the department came up with statistics confirming the Journal’s own well-informed, constantly reiterated faith that ours is not the opportunity-shriveled land of inequality depicted by populists such as the ones I cited as well, but instead a free-market home of social dynamism.
Despite endless palaver to the contrary, the study shows that 58 percent of those at the bottom of the income heap had climbed to higher quintiles over this stretch of time, some even making it to the quintile at the very top of the heap. People in the next quintile moved up impressively, as well. Look at average incomes and you find a 24 percent spurt during this period in inflation-adjusted dollars. Not so bad.
Just one group slipped over the 10 years, it turns out — the top 1 percent. Their incomes went down 26 percent. Whoever was responsible for rigging this system messed up royally, and managed to do it during the Bush administration when, we are incessantly told, it has been all kissy-kissy for rich people, to heck with the middle class. It happens, of course, that the Bush tax cuts were mostly for the middle class.
The other study comes our way from Pew Charitable Trusts, which goes back to the 1960s and looks at the economic fate of children in that period. The results parallel those of the government study. As adults, their incomes in constant dollars are substantially higher on average than were the incomes of their parents. If far less dramatically and more honorably, the usual experience is like that of Edwards, who as the child of a middle-class family went on to make multimillions as a lawyer, though his dubious medical-malpractice triumphs reportedly drove up health costs in North Carolina.
This study concludes that the black middle class did not fare so well — that many of the children ended up in worse circumstances as adults. But the columnist Robert Samuelson notes that the black middle class in the 1960s was very small and that the black middle class today is far larger. Though some blacks dropped out of the middle class, many more climbed into it. It is true of whites as well as blacks and others, Samuelson notes, that some from well-off families will not be well off themselves.
Should that surprise anyone? It is clearly true that childhood advantages can spur success. But success is no sure thing in a society where rewards tend to flow to drive, discipline, talent and various other qualities that money by itself cannot ensure.
The bravo news is that we remain blessed with upward income mobility — quite possibly more of it than ever — and that the leftist drivel about a plutocratic threat should send shivers up no one’s spine. Ours continues to be a society chock-full of profitable possibility, and while misfortune can strike and there obviously are people in distressed circumstances through no fault of their own, things are not getting worse. They are getting better. We continue to experience a prosperity greater and more widespread than history has ever known.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)