Both Obama and congressional Republicans view that issue as a high
priority, a rare point of agreement between the two sides. But the
Democratic president and Republicans disagree on the remedies,
setting up a debate that Obama will discuss in his State of the
Union address to Congress.
In the speech, scheduled for 9 p.m. EST on Tuesday (0200 GMT on
Wednesday), Obama will push an agenda for increasing economic upward
mobility and propose aid to the long-term unemployed, an increase in
the minimum wage and an expansion of early-childhood education.
After Obama's speech, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the fourth-ranking
Republican in the House of Representatives, will deliver a response
on behalf of her party. She will likely emphasize free-market ideas
for improving prosperity.
Senator Marco Rubio and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan,
two Republicans who are both seen as potential 2016 presidential
candidates, spoke this month on proposals for helping people climb
out of economic hardship.
Rubio has suggested shifting responsibility for many federal benefit
programs to the states. Ryan has floated the idea of providing a
single benefit to low-income families, modeled on one in Great
The problem of economic stagnation is expected to be a theme in
congressional election campaigns this year.
Analysts said social mobility was a potent political issue because
the United States has long seen itself as a place where anyone with
grit and determination can succeed.
In recent years, however, the wages of many low- and middle-income
workers have held steady or fallen on an inflation-adjusted basis.
The slow growth after the 2007-2009 recession has exacerbated this
At the same time, the wealthiest and most highly educated Americans,
referred to as the "1 percent," have grown more prosperous.
STUCK AT THE BOTTOM
Both Republicans and Democrats have expressed concern about studies
showing that economic mobility in the United States lags that of
some other industrialized economies, calling into question the
nation's reputation as a land of opportunity.
More than 40 percent of American men born into the poorest one-fifth
of earners remain there, a 2006 study led by Finnish economist
Markus Jantti showed. In Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden, only
about 25 percent of such men stay in that income segment.
American sons of low-income fathers are more likely to remain stuck
in the bottom tenth of earners as adults than are Canadian sons,
University of Ottawa economist Miles Corak said in a study published
in 2010. In the United States, 22 percent of men born to low-income
families stayed in that category, while the same was true of only 16
percent of Canadians.
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In 2012, former U.S. Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Alan
Krueger published a study that linked income inequality with low
levels of upward mobility. He devised a chart he named "The Great
Gatsby Curve" after the fabulously wealthy protagonist of the novel
by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
It showed the United States toward the upper end of the range of
both inequality and low economic mobility, along with Argentina,
Chile, and Brazil. At the opposite extreme, with low inequality and
high mobility, were Denmark, Norway and Finland.
A study from a group led by Harvard University economist Raj Chetty
added a new wrinkle to the debate with its finding that American
children's chances of moving up the economic ladder had not changed
much in the past few decades. The study also made clear that
children's prospects were tightly linked to their parents'
socio-economic status — more so in the United States than in some
other leading economies.
"It's not so much that we're losing the American dream," said
Harvard economist Nathaniel Hendren, one of the study's authors.
"It's did we ever have it, and do we want it?"
The focus on economic mobility builds on a pledge Obama has
emphasized over the past two years: to improve the standing and
security of the middle class.
The theme is newer for Republicans, who failed to capture the White
House in 2012 in part because many voters perceived their party's
candidate, Mitt Romney, as dismissive of the struggles of the poor
and working classes.
But analysts say a promise to boost economic mobility could resonate
across the ideological spectrum.
"The idea of the United States being exceptional in its ability to
promote economic opportunity or the notion of the nation being
suited to help people rise is very much part of our national ethos,"
said Erin Currier, director of economic mobility for the Pew
Charitable Trusts. "Americans feel strongly that the United States
should be the land of opportunity."
(Reporting by Mark Felsenthal; editing by Caren Bohan and Lisa Von
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