Income mobility has been in the public discourse of late and is informed by some of the best scholarship ever done. However, even the best sometimes need a bit more: this time, attention to self-sacrificing love and dedication.
Income mobility, the movement of an individual or family into a different income quintile, is not always upwards. For every new entrant “from below” into any of the upper quintiles, another who used to occupy that slot is bumped down. There will always be equal proportions of people in each quintile and there will always be a bottom quintile.
The best recent work on income mobility has been done by Raj Chetty, formerly of Harvard and now at Stanford, and his formidable intervarsity team of analysts. They report that, on average, about 10% of the bottom quintile (about 1/50th of our population) move up into the top quintile by age 26. For them, this is a phenomenal achievement.
Chetty finds, when looking at 26 year-olds, that about 26% of the top quintile is made up of young folk from the bottom two quintiles. Interestingly, when looking at 30-year-olds, that proportion from the bottom quintile shrinks to about 22% as those who studied longer for graduate degrees or advanced skills enter the top quintile. (Those pushed out would end up in the fourth quintile — still quite desirable.)
Our real concern is not who gets displaced from the top, or even what happens in the middle, but what happens at the bottom, especially what happens to children at the bottom of the bottom: the bottom 2 percent. This bottom fiftieth is defined by the neighborhood they are condemned, by budget, to live in. From many studies we know they likely live in a disordered neighborhood with frequent crime, violence, abuse and low-quality schools. The family structure that yields the disorder of the neighborhood is the absence of marriage: the unmarried single mother, the absent father and the live-in boyfriend, who is often not the first, nor the last The social disorder characteristic of these neighborhoods has its deepest roots in the multigenerational disorder of the mother/father relationship, leading to early out of wedlock births as teens imitate what they see.
Chetty et al., based on the evidence, recommend voucher assistance to help those who want to move to better neighborhoods to avoid the bad example around them. But from among families who stay stuck, it is the children with imagination and grit who make it out. Their ambition is likely kindled by a parent, relative, teacher, coach, pastor, a volunteer from Big Brothers or Big Sisters, but almost always by someone who sacrifices, if not their whole life (as many poor parents do) at least a portion of their time to help that child make it to the next step. Their gift of time and attention enables motivates the effort to move. This form of love makes the difference: not the puppy love of romance but the tough love of sacrifice. This is essential to Christianity. Though this self-sacrificing love is not confined to Christians, it has shined there the most.
“Dagger John” Hughes, an Irish immigrant who started off as a garden-laborer in Pennsylvania and ended up as Archbishop of New York in the 1850’s, was dedicated to the lowest of the low at that time: the Irish poor who inhabited Lower Manhattan. By the 1880’s the New York Times would refer to them as the “straight-laced” Irish. They had become the policemen, teachers, and nurses of New York City. Hughes pulled off this mobility miracle by attracting hundreds of celibate helpers (religious orders) who gave their lives to helping these poor Irish. In modern history many Christian leaders have inspired thousands to dedicate themselves to the poor of big cities: Catherine and William Booth (Salvation Army, London); Frederic Ozanam (Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Paris) and of course, Mother Theresa of Calcutta.
While Raj Chetty’s work shows that helping the poor move to better neighborhoods helps them climb upwards, those stuck at the bottom of the bottom will need something more: the sort of help that demands sacrifice and committed relationship, the kind that Booth, Ozanam, and Mother Theresa all gave.
This form of love is beyond policy. For income and vouchers, one can go to government, but not for self-sacrificing love.
We need this “idea correction” — better labeled an “idea addition” — to help those at the very bottom. They need one-on-one self-sacrificing dedication from those prepared to give it. Without that the bottom of the bottom will stay stuck, but with it we have a very different America, one we all will like a lot more.
With an eye to the child, the future of America,
Pat Fagan, Ph.D.
Director of the MARRI Project
Catholic University of America