Should Presidential Candidates Be Afraid to Talk about Declining Mobility and Growing Inequality?

In two previous posts, John Schmitt and I discussed social science evidence supporting the argument, made most recently in the Economic Report of the President, that rising inequality in the United States is linked with reduced economic mobility.  One of the more, um, interesting arguments made by Scott Winship is that by making this connection the President will “talk down the economy.” Winship, in recent Senate testimony, says he “worr[ies] that interest from one side in framing this year’s presidential and senate campaigns around overdrawn themes of inequality and diminished opportunity for the middle class will affect perceptions of the economy’s strength.”

I’d argue that a bigger worry for presidential candidates is whether they are taking the public’s very real and growing concern about inequality and mobility seriously. In a May 2011 Gallup poll, a majority of Americans (55 percent) said it was very/somewhat unlikely that “today’s youth will have a better life than their parents.” This is the highest percentage on record (and the first majority) answering this way since Gallup started asking the question in 1983.

It’s notable this all-time high in pessimism about young people’s economic future was recorded half a year before the President’s moderately populist Osawatomie speech in which he raised the connection between inequality and declining mobility for the first time. So, the President was giving voice to a majority perception of diminished opportunity.  (Also worth noting, consumer confidence has trended steadily upward since the Osawatomie, which suggests that real day-to-day economic events affect perceptions of the economy’s strength more than political campaigns.)

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