Lots of things President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union speech made my hair curl. But nothing as much as his assertion that the rungs have fallen off the ladder to success in today’s America.
The president, after touting his own rise from a single-parent home to the White House, told all those young people living in humble households that they’re stuck, the door to opportunity is shutting, that they may not be able to do what he did.
What a tragic message from a man whose rags to riches story ought to inspire all children to dream, strive and achieve.
And the worst part is that his claim, used to justify a new round of entitlement programs destined to make the poor even poorer and more dependent, is just not true.
The path from bottom to top today is no narrower than it was decades ago when Obama was traveling it.
In a new study, researchers at Harvard University and the University of California-Berkley — hardly right wing bastions — examined the income tax data of those born into poverty in the 1970s and assessed their ability to rise financially beyond the conditions of their birth.
“What we found is that mobility has remained remarkably stable,” Harvard’s Nathaniel Hendren, a co-author of the study, told National Public Radio. “The chance in which kids can climb up or down the income ladder has remained pretty stable over the last 20 to 25 years.”
While the study does confirm Obama’s other assertion — that the income gap between rich and poor is greater — it has not slowed upward mobility.
But the opportunity to climb the economic ladder is not automatic, and never was. The study says poor children who were born in regions of the country with a higher percentage of two-parent families and better schools were twice as likely to rise.
That’s common sense stuff. Obama, like many of us, owes his success to a mother who insisted he get an education and envisioned a better life for her child than she was able to live herself.
I keep on my office wall a photograph of a small, three-room house — shack, really — that sits in the Appalachian foothills. No running water. No central heat. It was my first home, and the photograph reminds me that it might still be my home today had my parents not made every sacrifice imaginable to give their children an opportunity.
Whatever dreams they may have had for themselves, they set them aside to dream for us.
That’s not some secret formula. Strong families that stress education, smart choices, personal responsibility and an understanding of what it really means to work hard is how successful children have been raised for generations in this country.
Obama didn’t talk about those values. He’d rather us think that we must stand on the shoulders of a benevolent government to reach the top rung, that getting ahead depends on getting a hand-out, and that our shortfalls can be blamed on the success of others.
The route to prosperity isn’t closed off yet. But if the president’s message takes hold, it soon will be.
Follow Nolan Finley on Twitter at nolanfinleydn,and watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on “MiWeek” on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.