For much of the past half-century most Americans have believed they had a chance to get ahead if they worked hard and played by the rules. That was true partly because of four remarkable ladders of opportunity created or managed by the public sector.
Much has been written about the loss of upward mobility in America. That is due to our inattention and lack of understanding about how opportunity works: We unwittingly choked off economic advancement (enjoyed by our parents and grandparents) without being aware of how ladders of opportunity functioned.
Here are the four:
The armed services. From World War II until 1973, a mandatory draft drew young men from all levels of society, including the least educated and the most disadvantaged. In the armed services most of them learned basic skills, how to follow orders, and how to perform complex jobs as part of a team. After the war, the G.I. Bill offered veterans a college education, which meant a crack at the job market. Since 1973, we've had professional armed forces that picked who got to join them. That limited the services as a funnel of opportunity for the bottom rungs of the social and economic ladder.
Public-sector expansion. For many, the growth of state and local government throughout the 20th century provided a way into the middle class; state and local government employment grew fastest from the 1950s onward. The jobs were a ticket to regular income, benefits, a home and good retirement for those with little academic preparation from poor families. But in the past decade, public-sector growth leveled off, and since the crash of 2008 it actually has decreased.
Academic degrees. Public universities educate three quarters of the people who go to college in our country. But we have cut the budgets of state universities and imposed sharply higher fees.
State officials have cited budget pressures for these actions, but no one seems to have realized that budget cuts would damage the institutions and fee increases would make higher education inaccessible to the students who need it most. One figure sums up how we slammed the door: Over the past four decades, the portion of family income of the poorest fifth in this country required to pay for a four-year education at a public university rose from 42 percent to 114 percent. Today, those families face the ugly choice of going deeply in debt, or bypassing college.
Health sector. Over the past four decades, this sector has grown steadily at more than 2 percent a year, employing roughly 15 million people.
We have embarked on a ferocious campaign to cap health costs. This is something we had to do because of waste and the soaring cost of a system that offers lower quality care than other countries that spend less than we do on health care per capita. But the cost-cutting limits the entrance to this ladder of opportunity as well because new health jobs from an expanding health sector won't be there for job market entrants.
We can repair some of the damage by opening up higher education. States could decide to reallocate half of the money they save in cracking down on health costs to reduce public university fees. And as little as 2 percent to 3 percent of our enormous military budget could be reallocated to allow any high school graduates to "opt in" to the armed services, and receive training for a minimum of one year.
We have to restrain government spending. But these kind of steps are feasible and affordable, and we should take them if we want to be the land of opportunity again.
Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State, is a former publisher of the International Herald Tribune and headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.