Bottlenecks, On-Ramps, and Upward Mobility

Monday, June 29, 2015

I read Joseph Fishkin's Bottlenecks earlier this year, and I've revisited it several times since, including with this Brookings series. So, perhaps, it's not surprising that Bottlenecks was the first thing I thought of when, early in Putnam's narratives comparing his peers growing up with children's opportunities today, he highlights how much more difficult it is, now, to make it to college if one doesn't transition there soon after high school.

In the language of bottlenecks, this is a high-stakes moment that carry consequences that will echo into the future. Other bottlenecks include college admissions tests, prisoner reentry, and, of course, poverty itself, in an age where so many opportunities have high entry costs. Where one falls on either side can mean the difference between success and failure, even when the distinction is not inherently meaningful. Rebounding from a setback can be unnecessarily and insurmountably difficult, especially when, as Putnam describes them, the 'social airbags' (p. 198) that soften the consequences of mistakes for those surrounded by inequitable privileges are not available to those less advantaged.

If bottlenecks and the loss of a more forgiving 'second-chance' opportunity structure are important elements of the calculus explaining persistent inequality and stagnant mobility, then we are a nation in desperate need of a wider path and more potential entry points.

This is where Economic Mobility Accounts come in.

These accounts, which could be used throughout a child's life, to prepare for higher education and advanced training, purchase asset investments, subsidize economic risks, and cushion in the event of unexpected setbacks, could play critical roles in breaking open bottlenecks, serving as 'airbags', and opening otherwise closed doors.

If securing greater mobility and reducing inequality require allowing people to wind, at times, through different pathways, retrace steps that didn't pan out, and apply themselves again to a task in which they were thwarted the first time, it is hard to imagine a more useful tool for that journey than flexible, lifelong, progressive asset accounts.

If the institutional structures that afforded such chances in Putnam's young adulthood--or his reading of it--are no longer available, at least not broadly or fairly, than today's children may need to carry their own.

Economic Mobility Accounts, as battering rams for bottlenecks, an opportunity implement for the 21st Century economy.

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