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EMP_InternationalComparisons_ChapterIII

EMP_InternationalComparisons_ChapterIII - III INTERNATIONAL...

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INTERNATIONAL COMPARISONS OF ECONOMIC MOBILITY BY JULIA B. ISAACS, The Brookings Institution reedom from the constraints of aristocratic society lured many of our ancestors to cross the ocean to the New World. European visitors such as Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at the economic dynamism and social mobility of American society in the first half of the nineteenth century. 1 More recently, immigrants continue to cross our boundaries in search of the promise of the American Dream. Given this history, many Americans believe that the opportunities for moving up the economic ladder are greater in the United States than they are in other countries. But is this widely held assumption of greater economic mobility in the United States borne out by the evidence? A review of international surveys and cross- country research on economic mobility yielded the following answers to this question. AMERICANS ARE MORE OPTIMISTIC THAN OTHERS ABOUT THEIR CHANCES OF GETTING AHEAD Americans have more faith than do people in other countries that they will receive economic rewards for individual effort, intelligence, and skills. About two-thirds of Americans (69 percent) agree with the statement that “people are rewarded for intelligence and skill,” the highest percentage across 27 countries participating in an international survey of social attitudes conducted between 1998 and 2001. 2 As Figure 1 indicates, only about one-fifth (19 percent) of Americans believe that coming from a wealthy family is essential or very important to getting ahead; the median response among all countries was 28 percent. E C O N O M I C M O B I L I T Y P R O J E C T : An Initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts F FIGURE 1 Perceptions of Mobility and Inequality in 27 Countries PEOPLE GET REWARDED FOR THEIR EFFORT PEOPLE GET REWARDED FOR THEIR INTELLIGENCE AND SKILLS COMING FROM A WEALTHY FAMILY IS ESSENTIAL/VERY IMPORTANT TO GETTING AHEAD DIFFERENCES IN INCOME IN (COUNTRY) ARE TOO LARGE IT IS RESPONSIBILITY OF THE GOVERNMENT TO REDUCE THE DIFFERENCES IN INCOME 10 % 20 % 30 % 40 % 50 % 60 % 70 % 80 % 90 % 100 % Source: Brookings tabulation of data from the International Social Survey Program, 1998–2001. KEY MAX MIN MEDIAN US Percentage of Citizens in Country Agreeing with Belief III
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E C O N O M I C M O B I L I T Y P R O J E C T : An Initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts I N T E R N AT I O N A L C O M PA R I S O N S O F Economic Mobility 2 Widespread belief in one’s ability to get ahead may explain why Americans are more accepting of economic inequality than are people in other countries. While there are large gaps between rich and poor in the United States, and a majority of Americans (62 percent) agree with the statement that income differences in this country are too large, in other countries much greater majorities hold this belief: 85 percent is the median response and 96 percent is the maximum response. Another strong cultural difference is that Americans are less likely than others to believe that the government should take responsibility for reducing
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