There’s an interesting quote about income trends in today’s Bob Herbert column in the New York Times. Talking about polling data that shows American’s are increasingly concerned about the future, he writes:

Americans have every reason to be concerned. A study released last spring showed that men who are now in their 30s earn less than their fathers’ generation did at the same age. The median income for men in their 30s in 1974, in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars, was $40,210. According to the study, which used Census figures compiled for 2004, those annual earnings had dropped to $35,010.

The source for those numbers is a study titled, “Economic Mobility: Is the American Dream Alive and Well?” [pdf]. It was written by Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institute and John E. Morton of The Pew Charitable Trusts as part of The Economic Mobility Project. It is a very interesting report and includes polling data about Americans’ “National belief in mobility” contrasted with the fact that “U.S. income inequality is growing.”

Also included is a model, based on Sawhill’s work, that includes three ways of describing the way mobility might work, or, in other words, the degree to which society might be more open or closed:

  • The meritocratic society. Those who work the hardest and have the greatest talent, regardless of class, gender, race, or other characteristics, have the highest income.
  • The “fortune cookie” society. Where one ends up bears no relation to talent or energy, and is purely a matter of luck.
  • The class-stratified society. Family background is all-important — children end up in the same relative position as their parents. Mobility between classes is little to nonexistent.

The principle behind the American dream is that meritocracy is possible. If that is not the practice, then there is the problem, highlighted by Martineau‘s consideration of the relationship between morals and manners, of what to do about that. It leads Herbert in his column to ask the question: “Who is rallying America with the clarion call that we can do great things?”

Herbert also makes mention of a book that I think I’ll have to check out. It is “The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America,” by Katherine Newman and Victor Tan Chen, which Herbert describes as focusing on the “57 million [Americans who] are struggling just one notch above the poverty line.”