Climbing the ladder: Social mobility in the United States
Watch the UVA Democracy Biennial
The Biennial was originally broadcast September 24-25, 2021
About this video
May 21, 2019
Kathleen Sebelius, John Bridgeland, Chris Lu, Larry Terry (moderator)
By Vanessa Revilla
Equal opportunity and social mobility are at the core of the American Dream. But in a labor force struggling with discrimination, deep socio-economic divides, massive student debt, and rapidly changing technological requirements, it is becoming increasingly difficult for many Americans to seize control of their own destiny.
"Climbing the Ladder" addressed these issues head on with panelists Kathleen Sebelius, the former secretary of health and human services under Barack Obama; John Bridgeland, the former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under George W. Bush; and Chris Lu, the former deputy secretary of labor under Barack Obama.
Sebelius began the discussion noting that Americans tend to overestimate the amount of social mobility in their country. "The facts are a little more grim.”
Younger generations, Sebelius explained, have far less mobility than older ones. Most Americans born between 1940 and 1980 were likely to double their parents’ income; only half of Americans born after 1980 are likely to live at level even marginally better than their parents.
Bridgeland vividly captured the problem: “The emblems of the American Dream, which are get a home, buy a car, send your children to college, are now emblems of crushing debt. Most Americans are retrenching and trying to simplify their lives.”
In order to address why the divide between rich and poor so drastically impacts the level of success future generations will achieve, Sebelius believes that Americans must look at social health, in addition to physical health.
“Mostly people are healthier or less healthy because of those social determinants... So it’s the air you breath; the water you drink in Flint, Michigan; where you live; what kind of food you have access to; do you have exercise. All of those environmental, economic issues have a huge impact on lifestyle, lifespan, how you conduct yourselves,” She explained. “Being healthy is not just an absence of disease, it’s being able to live to your full potential. It’s working, living longer. And I think that has a lot to do with social mobility.”
The power to improve your life also depends on the educational culture and examples you grow up with. Though most high schools enjoy graduation rates in the 95% range, there are those whose graduation rates hover around 40%, dramatically limiting the opportunities of every person who lives in the community.
Another often forgotten aspect of education involves the times when students are not in school. Many students rely on school breakfast and lunch, and their health and ability to learn suffers without those meals. Lu also pointed out that, “study after study shows the reading levels of kids from low income families over the summer goes down because reading is not innate in the culture of parents reading to kids at that age [and] parents don’t have time. . . . We need not only to focus on what happens during those nine months, but what happens over the summer period as well.”
As for solutions, all three panelists took a strong stance in favor of expanding the community college and the apprenticeship models, which favor specific training over the credentialing functions of a traditional liberal arts education. Lu argued that, realistically, employees do not need a college education for many jobs. He offered the example of Zurich Insurance Company in Switzerland:
“[Zurich] has now created an apprenticeship program for claims adjusters because what they’ve realized is, look, we can hire four-year graduates, but we still have to train them, and frankly, most of them won’t stay in these jobs.” He proposed businesses in the U.S. adopt this model and form a partnership with a local community college. Through this system, students would spend half their day on-site learning how to do the job and the other half taking classes at college. The corporation would pay their college tuition, and, in turn, the students would work at that company for several years after graduation.
Lu believes that this will break the “train and pray” method of educating students generally and hoping they find a job and offer businesses “a more engaged workforce that is more likely to stay.” And, Lu predicted, businesses will also end up with “a more diverse workforce than they would have otherwise gotten.”
Key quotes from this session
We’re here in Charlottesville, and you mentioned Jefferson’s mystical notion of a pursuit of happiness, and the Declaration is fundamental to America’s creed. In addition to that, the individual right of being able to send your kid to college or have a decent home, a decent life, he and Adams were talking about that being a collective enterprise of the public happiness. And that I can’t be happy unless my neighbor’s happy. I worry about if the person who’s homeless or vulnerable is happy. —John Bridgeland
That’s the other thing about employment numbers that I’m always skeptical about. I want to know what these jobs are. If you had a job, as Chris said earlier, that had pension and benefits and had a pathway to moving up, and now you are flipping burgers or driving Uber or doing any number of things that is part-time, part-base, no support, no trajectory. I think we have a false sense of what employment is like right now in this country. —Kathleen Sebelius
There is a level of jobs that is disappearing and changing because of automation. . . . I think what we also need to understand there’s a whole level of jobs that have to be done by people in this country. And for those jobs that have to be done by people, we really have to pay them a living wage. I’m thinking specifically about certified nurse aids, which is the lowest rung of nursing at hospitals, child care, elder care… Those are some of the most critical jobs and we ought to be paying people more than minimum wage to do those jobs. —Chris Lu
Helping children just apply to schools is daunting. I can’t imagine what that process is like if you have not ever gone to college, if no one in your family has gone to college, and you don’t know how to do that. If we really want kids to be college ready . . . we have to start when they’re freshman in high school and give them someone and say, ‘When you’re ready I’m going to do everything I can to help you.’ —Kathleen Sebelius