Once upon a time, proponents of the idea of “American exceptionalism” used to point to Europe’s high youth unemployment rates as an object lesson. See what happens, they’d lecture, when countries have inflexible labor markets and cradle-to-grave social benefits?
But an inconvenient truth has emerged. The youth unemployment rate in the United States is now higher than that of five European countries, ranging from Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands to those two bastions of sclerotic Scandinavian socialism, Denmark and Norway.
Even more upsetting to received ideas are studies showing that many European countries not only provide their young people a better chance of finding a job, they also offer them a better shot at moving up the income ladder from poor to rich. In America, land of the patchwork social safety net, only 8 percent of men born in the bottom fifth of the income scale make it to the top fifth as adults; in Sweden, the U.K., and Denmark, it is 11, 12, and 14 percent respectively.
Yet another old notion that no longer applies is that Americans are get-up-and-go types who hitch up the wagon and head to whatever territories offer the most opportunity. It turns out that Americans are migrating at only a fraction of the rate they used to. So, for example, between the 1980s and the 2000s the percentage of young adults (eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds) who migrated across state lines declined by 41 percent. Though it may not square with our national self-image, America today is a nation of people who tend to stay put, with a population that is no more mobile than that of Denmark or Finland.
That wouldn’t be disconcerting if opportunity were equally distributed everywhere in the country. But it clearly is not. The Charlotte metro area, for example, has twice the unemployment rate of greater Minneapolis and much less economic mobility. In Minneapolis, children from families in the bottom fifth of the income scale are more than twice as likely as their counterparts in Charlotte to rise to the top fifth. Similarly, the Washington, D.C., metro area offers an unemployment rate that is almost half that of greater Memphis, while its rate of upward mobility is more than three times higher.
Hidden in these disconcerting statistics is a ray of hope: some parts of the country that are doing relatively well, like Minneapolis, Boston, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., have rates of upward mobility that favorably compare to the leading countries of Europe. What, then, is behind the geographical variations in opportunity in America? What is keeping today’s twentysomethings from moving to places where opportunity seems to be greater? And what can be done to strengthen the ladder of upward mobility in areas where it is weaker? That’s the subject of this package of stories, produced in partnership with the Social Science Research Council’s Measure of America project and the nonprofit group Opportunity Nation.
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