In the United States, dreams have a funny way of becoming reality. That’s what makes the American dream so powerful. It’s renewed, and usually achieved, in each new generation.
It’s been more than 50 years now since Martin Luther King Jr. described his goal of equality of opportunity for all Americans. It was “a dream deeply rooted in the American dream,” he explained, a dream based on “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”
In many ways, the U.S. has achieved that dream and moved on to others. Segregated water fountains and restaurants are a thing of the past, and laws ensure equal treatment in hiring. But in his speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, President Obama warned that things are getting worse. “The twin forces of technology and global competition have subtracted those jobs that once provided a foothold into the middle class, reduced the bargaining power of American workers,” he said.
To be sure, Americans haven’t achieved economic equality. Obama warned, “We’d be told that growing inequality was the price for a growing economy, a measure of the free market—that greed was good and compassion ineffective, and those without jobs or health care had only themselves to blame.”
But opportunity, not outcomes, should be our concern. And, Obama’s straw man aside, the way to raising incomes is so simple it almost goes without saying: Get more people working, and remove barriers to upward mobility.
In 2010 the Census Bureau reported that some 75 percent of households in the top income quintile had two earners. In the bottom quintile, only 5 percent had two income earners, while 95 percent had one or none. “The problem we face,” Heritage’s Stuart Butler writes, “is not one of inadequate equality, but one of inadequate mobility.”
One important way to improve mobility and also eliminate poverty would be to encourage marriage. “Overall, children in married families are 82 percent less likely to be poor than are children of single parents,” Heritage’s Robert Rector finds. Yet too many federal policies over the past few decades have actually encouraged single parenting rather than encouraging marriage.
Another way would be to help replace the culture of quick fixes and lotteries with a culture of systematic savings. And we need charter schools and other forms of school choice to fix disastrous urban public education and so remove the shackles blocking opportunity.
Meanwhile, Obama Administration proposals and policies, from climate change to excessive regulations to health care, are taking our economy in the wrong direction, making it more expensive to hire people and thus costing jobs.
There’s no reason the American economy can’t continue to thrive for the next 50 years. But we should stop worrying about “inequality” and instead focus on giving everyone the opportunity to move up in the world.