The Mobility Mentality
Americans born into the lowest income quintile need more than just economic assistance to end up in a better place, say Third Way policy analysts Sarah Trumble and Lanae Erickson Hatalsky in a new paper. They also need the right mentality.
Can the government help to instill that mentality? We recently took a few minutes to speak with Hatalsky about the analysis. The conversation has been lightly edited.
What is the mobility barrier and why has it remained stable over the past 50 years?
The mobility barrier is the inability to escape the lowest economic quintile if that is where you were born. We have seen a lot of improvements in the area of poverty in the last 50 years. The War on Poverty took huge strides in making sure that the experience of being poor in this country was not nearly as dire as it had been in past ages.
But what it hasn’t been able to do yet is make it so that people who are born in poverty can end up at different levels of the income spectrum. When you look at people born in the second-lowest quintile, for example, they are pretty much equally likely to end up in a bunch of different income quintiles as an adult.
That is not true if you look at the lowest quintile. If you are born very poor, you have a 70 percent chance to stay poor, and the odds are even higher if you don’t get a college degree. The way to get out right now is to have a college degree. So that is the problem we are facing.
I think a lot of what we have focused on is trying to lift up the people that are in poverty, and we have been less focused on the ability of different economic quintiles. We really focus on making sure that everyone who is in the bottom has a safety net of some kind, and that is incredibly important. But mobility is about individual people and their ability to start in one place and end up and another, and that hasn’t really been our focus.
Which demographics make up the bottom income quintile?
The bottom quintile is actually very mixed in terms of race and certainly in terms of gender. Sixty percent are white in the bottom quintile. Twenty-one percent are African American. Slightly more of the bottom quintile is African American than of the general population. But that is only one in five of the bottom quintile, which I think isn’t people’s stereotype of what the bottom quintile is. The bottom quintile is majority white.
There is a mix of different kinds of households in the bottom quintile. You are more likely to be in the bottom quintile of you are not in a married family. But also half of folks in the bottom quintile do live in married-couple households because there are so many married-couple households. So I think the stereotype of who is in the bottom quintile is a little bit misguided. We are actually talking about lots of different types of families and lots of different Americans who are struggling and facing this poverty.
You mention that aside from economic assistance, a crucial component for mobility is a mentality that encompasses both a growth mindset and grit. Can you describe this mentality?
There has been a lot of research on the education front lately about what folks have called non-cognitive characteristics. Not how much you know about a certain subject, not how many words you know or have heard, but more like character characteristics. Those that drive your behavior, things like perseverance and delayed gratification. Grit is defined as the ability to see a long-term goal and then take the steps and persevere to get to it. It encompasses pieces of delayed gratification, but also a longer-term perspective.
The growth mindset is a newer discovery that shows how some people at certain times have a fixed mindset -- which means they believe that the hand they have been dealt is all they have to work with. They believe that some people are smart, some people are not smart, some people are well off, some people are not well off, and that is just how the cookie crumbles. But the growth mindset has been newly studied to show that if you believe that you can change your own position -- for example, if you believe a brain is a muscle you can train -- rather than believing that some people are just smart and some people aren’t smart, you are much more likely to succeed. This is because you think obstacles are just things that you can overcome rather than an obstacle being set in your way that you believe is destined to be there.
What can the government do to help instill this mentality in America’s youth?
I think there are many things the government can do, but what we really need to do is start to have that conversation. In the past we have never thought of the many ways government interacts with poverty and poor Americans as having anything to do with these characteristics. We send nurses or social workers into homes to do home-visit programs, but we focus on things like teaching mothers how to mix formulas, or teaching parents how to develop children’s cognitive skills.
But we haven’t focused in the past on these important aspects of a mobility mentality. So I think what we need to do is look at all the ways government interacts with people in the lowest quintile, and in each of those programs reform them to be instilling and encouraging a growth mindset and grit. The home-visitation program is a perfect example. If we are spending millions of dollars of government money already to help new parents figure how to effectively parent their children, we should be also teaching them the importance of the growth mindset and grit so they can pass that along to their children.
Another way is to make sure there are more grown-ups in children’s lives so they can be taught these important characteristics. Developing a “Boomer corps” of folks who have retired but are still in very good health and would like to contribute to children who maybe don’t have enough grown-ups in their lives that are stable right now. Having those folks being able to provide a support system to better help single parents succeed and help their children have growth and grit, that’s another place the government can invest.
The other big thing the government can do is to have a growth mindset itself about Americans in the lowest quintile. In many ways we currently exhibit a fixed mindset toward people in the lowest quintile, either by saying how terrible it is to be poor and how unlikely it is for people to get out of poverty, thereby reinforcing the notion that it is not possible -- or, if someone has made one mistake, by deciding they are a bad person, that they are not able to be rehabilitated or be a contributing citizen in society, and throwing them away. So one of our suggestions is to use a growth mindset toward felons by establishing a “commendable release” program. There are plenty of people who have paid their debt to society about whom we should have a growth mindset. Instead of making them check “felon” on every employment application for the rest of their lives, we should say that you have done what we have asked you to do, and now you should be able to earn your way not to have to check that box.
What would the role of parents be in these programs?
We call it the role of grown-ups. Parents are some important grown-ups certainly who can help to instill a grit and a growth mindset. But the thing about grit and a growth mindset is that they can be taught. The question is who can teach children to have those.
Children at every income level have some level of grit and a growth mindset. Some children that are middle class do, some children that are poor do, and some children that are rich do. But what we need is to make sure that every child who is poor has these characteristics and is taught them, because they are the ones that really need to overcome the most hurdles to succeed.
It is also not baked in from the beginning. At any point, grown-ups can teach children to have that mindset. It could be parents, or it could be other supportive grown-ups in the kid’s lives, but those lessons are necessary if we are going to have kids who are born in the lowest quintile succeed and end up at the end of their life in a different position.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I think in order to increase mobility there are definitely economic things that we need to do to enable people to succeed. But we also need to focus on these social aspects, because simply providing the economic support we need isn’t enough to overcome the gravitational pull that poverty has.
We have seen that over the past 50 years, and now we have the research to prove there are certain characteristics that not only can be taught, but are much more likely to lead to success. Since we know those things now, we should go back and look at every possible way we can incorporate them into how we deal with folks in the lowest quintile, because that is really what is going to help us overcome this mobility barrier.
Michael Cipriano is a RealClearPolitics editorial intern.