WASHINGTON - Benjamin Franklin did it. Henry Ford did it. And American life is built on the faith that others can do it, too: rise from humble origins to economic heights. "Movin' on up," George Jefferson-style, is not only a sitcom song but a civil religion.
But many researchers have reached a conclusion that turns conventional wisdom on its head: Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe. The mobility gap has been widely discussed in academic circles, but a sour season of mass unemployment and street protests has moved the discussion toward center stage.
Former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a Republican candidate for president, warned this fall that movement "up into the middle income is actually greater, the mobility in Europe, than it is in America." National Review, a conservative thought leader, wrote that "most Western European and English-speaking nations have higher rates of mobility." Even Representative Paul D. Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican who argues that overall mobility remains high, recently wrote that "mobility from the very bottom up" is "where the United States lags behind."