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Friday, March 6, 2015  |   Madison, WI: 1.0° F  
CITIZEN DAVE: Thoughts and ideas about city building from Madison's former mayor
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Citizen Dave: An upwardly mobile Europe, a rigid U.S.
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Yesterday I wrote about Europe, and asked why it was that Mitt Romney found it advantageous to run against European policies when they appeared to be so successful.

One criticism of my arguments was that I didn't take into account the fact that America was the land of opportunity while Europe had a stifling culture of classism. Well, as if on cue, there was a front page story in this morning's New York Times that makes a convincing case that Europeans are actually far more upwardly mobile than Americans.

That conclusion has been widely held in academia for some time. For example, a recent study by a Swedish economist found that 42% of American men who grew up in households in the bottom fifth of incomes stayed there as adults. The comparable figures for Denmark (25%) and Britain (30%) demonstrate the point.

But now the fact of American class stasis is being talked about even in conservative political circles. The problem has been recognized as real by none other than the likes of The National Review, Congressman Paul Ryan and even the GOP flavor-of-the-week Rick Santorum.

No one knows for sure why we've become this way, but good theories on the depth of American-style poverty address our thin social safety net compared to Europe and the higher rewards in the U.S. for higher education. Well-educated Americans expect and demand the same for their kids. Poorly educated Americans are less likely to pass on a love of learning or insist on higher standards in the classroom. (This brings the local tussle over Madison Prep into stark relief.)

The significance of this can't be overestimated. The reason that working class Americans haven't gotten excited about the highest concentration of wealth since the eve of the Great Depression is their belief that the rich earned it and that they can earn it too if they just work hard enough. But the studies seem to show that the cards are stacked too high against them and too high in favor of the already well off.

One cold night at a city council meeting a few years ago, a homeless single mother showed up with her three year-old son. She had been turned down at every stop and social service offices were closed. My staff called around, getting bureaucrats out of bed, but there was no solution for that night. We worked something out, she and her son found a warm, safe place to sleep that night, and her longer-term needs were addressed the next day.

But as I sat talking to this cute little boy in the press room just off the council floor, I wondered what kind of future he could have in store for him. He was a good-natured kid, apparently oblivious to his family's plight. Maybe he'd turn out to be a person of extraordinary character and make it up and out of poverty. But I knew the odds weren't good for that.

If the myth of American upward mobility can be set aside, we might be able to have a real conversation in this country about poverty, education, and a more fair distribution of wealth without the Republicans screaming about "class warfare."

There has been a certain kind of class warfare going on. It's just that the victims are children with too little chance to achieve what we all want for them, and for ourselves and our country.

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