It was like that moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy emerges from the grey remains of her dislocated home into an exotic world of color. That was how I felt at twelve years of age upon my arrival in Minnesota.
Home up to that point had been the dank flat malaise of inner-ring suburban Detroit. In many ways, the Motor City evoked Dorothy’s Kansas. Everything was built on the grid system, many right angles, old houses of stone and brick. It was tangibly dull, colors muted by wear and grime. Winters were especially bleak. An amalgam of overcast, endless concrete and dirt-ridden snow drowned the world in grey. By comparison, the big skies and rolling hills of the Mississippi valley seemed a storybook paradise.
That first trip to Minnesota was made in order to spend time with my father. He had been maintaining an apartment in the Twin Cities while starting a new position with Northwest Airlines. We were to scout out potential homes in anticipation of transplanting the rest of the family, my mother and two sisters. It was perhaps the most visceral manifestation of upward mobility in our family’s history, chasing opportunity across the country.
It was the culmination of my father’s economic journey, which had its beginnings in poverty. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about my father’s childhood aside from the scraps I’ve managed to glean from remarks thrown here and there. I know enough, however, to understand that my father’s rise to the middle class beat the odds — which were stacked against him from the start.
Many years later, I continue to benefit from the choices Dad made. Now the father of my own young family, I stand atop his shoulders looking to grab the next rung. From that position, I realize that some of the essential concepts my father applied are still relevant to me today. As I seek to renew the momentum my father achieved, I reflect upon where he began and how he got to where he did. There are valuable lessons there.
First, it’s important to understand the goal. When we consider the quest for upward mobility, what is our measure of success? In a 2011 piece for Time magazine, assistant managing editor Rana Foroohar makes a crucial distinction:
You can argue about what kind of mobility really matters. Many conservatives, for example, would be inclined to focus on absolute mobility, which means the extent to which people are better off than their parents were at the same age. That’s a measure that focuses mostly on how much economic growth has occurred, and by that measure, the U.S. does fine. Two-thirds of 40-year-old Americans live in households with larger incomes, adjusted for inflation, than their parents had at the same age (though the gains are smaller than they were in the previous generation).
But just as we don’t feel grateful to have indoor plumbing or multichannel digital cable television, we don’t necessarily feel grateful that we earn more than our parents did. That’s because we don’t peg ourselves to our parents; we peg ourselves to the Joneses. Behavioral economics tells us that our sense of well-being is tied not to the past but to how we are doing compared with our peers. Relative mobility matters. By that standard, we aren’t doing very well at all. Having the right parents increases your chances of ending up middle to upper middle class by a factor of three or four.
It’s a mistake to take for granted the notion that “relative mobility matters” without asking why. As we consider some ideas for rising from poverty to the middle class, it will become apparent that improving our individual quality of life is a superior consideration to how our wealth compares with that of others.