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Mitt in Fantasyland

Posted: September 25, 2012 12:18 p.m.
Updated: September 26, 2012 5:00 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- In Mitt Romney’s Fantasyland version of the American Dream, all it takes to succeed in this country is determination and hard work. Government merely needs to get out of the way, roust the Entitlement Society slackers, and let the Opportunity Society strivers go for it.

“Frankly, I was born with a silver spoon, which is the greatest gift you could have, which is to get born in America,” Romney told donors at the now-famous Florida fundraiser. “I’ll tell you ... 95 percent of life is set up for you if you’re born in this country.”

Describing his own path, Romney noted that he gave away the money his father left him. “I have inherited nothing,” he said. “Everything I earned I earned the old-fashioned way.”

There’s only one thing wrong with this cozy, self-satisfied worldview: it omits the enormous advantages accruing to those born on third base. It ignores the grim reality that those born to less-privileged families are far less likely than the Bushes or Romneys of the world to secure their place in the middle class or above.

It imagines an America where economic mobility is far more fluid than it is in reality. Being born in America is an advantage, to be sure, but some spoons are a lot more sterling than others.

A new study from the Brookings Institution’s Center on Children and Families underscores Romney’s misperception. “The reality is that economic success in America is not purely meritocratic,” write authors Isabel V. Sawhill, Scott Winship and Kerry Searle Grannis.  Rather, they say, “It helps if you have the right parents. Those born into rich or poor families have a high probability of remaining rich or poor as adults.”

Consider Romney’s situation. Born to parents in the top 20 percent of the income distribution, he had an 82 percent chance of ending up in the middle 20 percent or above by the time he was in his 40s. For a child born into a family in the bottom 20 percent, the chance of rising to the middle 20 percent or above is just 30 percent.

Romney’s skewed understanding of economic mobility matters because of its implications for the policies he would pursue. If you don’t understand a problem -- or, in this case, fail to perceive that it exists -- you can hardly be counted on to endorse efforts to fix it.

The Brookings study, “Pathways to the Middle Class: Balancing Personal and Public Responsibilities,” illuminates how success at various life stages helps determine an individual’s chances of ending up in the middle class or above: family formation -- being born at normal birth weight to a non-poor, married mother with at least a high school diploma. Early childhood -- being school-ready by age 5. Adolescence -- graduating from high school with a 2.5 grade-point average and having not been convicted of a crime or become a parent.

At these and other stages, being from an economically or socially advantaged background is makes a huge difference. To take one especially disturbing data point, only one in three children from the bottom fifth of households manage to pass the report’s rather low standard of successful adolescence.

So smart policy would be programs that seek to bridge this gap.

Because being born to a young, single mother is not conducive to success, smart policy would concentrate on preventing teen pregnancy. Romney would eliminate the federal family planning program that has prevented millions of unwanted pregnancies.

Because school readiness at age 5 helps predict school success, smart policy would seek to promote early childhood education. Romney’s education plan is silent on this subject. 

Because having a college degree is increasingly a prerequisite to a middle-class life, smart policy would be to make college affordable and encourage completion. Romney talks about ensuring college affordability but his argument has a certain backward quality. “The best thing I can do is not to [say], ‘Hey, I’ll loan you more money’ ... I don’t want to overwhelm you with debts,” Romney said at a Univision forum.

When it comes to closing the gap in economic mobility, individuals matter. So do families. “Putting the full responsibility on government to close those gaps is unreasonable,” the Brookings authors write, “but so is a heroic assumption that everyone can be a Horatio Alger with no help from society.”

Governor, you’re no Horatio Alger. What will you do to give others the opportunity that good fortune granted you?

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