Volume 6: Opportunity & upward mobility

September 14, 2016 Guian McKee, Volume 6 co-editor
Gustavo Frazao / Shutterstock.com

Concerns about opportunity and mobility have been defining issues in the 2016 presidential campaign. From the Bernie Sanders insurgency in the Democratic primary to the Republican Party’s nomination of Donald Trump, fear about the future of the American Dream has shaped voter behavior in 2016—and will be a central concern for the new president’s first year.

Many Americans now believe that their children face a future of vastly diminished expectations. Faced with the rising cost of housing and education, decreased social and economic security, racial inequality, and a competitive global economy, they may not achieve the standard of living enjoyed by their parents and grandparents, let alone do better.

Yet the political discourse about such issues—much less the policies proposed and implemented—has failed to address their concerns. Our leaders have proved unwilling to ask hard questions about why the American Dream seems to serve fewer and fewer Americans—and about what can be done to secure the dream for the next generation. One result has been the unprecedented upheaval of the 2016 campaign.

In designing the First Year project’s Volume 6: Opportunity & upward mobility, we set out to push the next president to approach this issue in new and revealing ways. The eight essays that result pursue this goal from a range of perspectives. Look for the Volume 6 essays on Monday, September 19, 2016. 

A key point for the volume is that the American Dream has increasingly been elusive for both the middle class and for the poor. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, the increasing insecurity of the American middle class has been the subject of extensive debate and commentary. Even more recently, the upheavals in Ferguson, Baltimore, and other cities have directed renewed attention to the intertwined problems of race and multi-generational poverty.

Too often, however, political and policy discussions treat these as separate issues: for most candidates, the problems of the middle class are one (often favored) category, and poverty is another. Volume 6 provides a rare opportunity to bridge these gaps, connect these problems, and reorient debates in new and more productive directions. Together, they suggest that in the next president’s first year, he or she has an opportunity to do something about it.

The opportunity & upward mobility volume operates on two premises: first, that the same broad set of public policies have shaped the differing fates of the middle class and the poor; second, that deep structural changes in the economy have increasingly made the insecurity that the poor have always known familiar to the middle class as well. These changes include deindustrialization, the emergence of disruptive technologies, and globalization—processes that have themselves been shaped by policy choices.

How the next president manages these challenges, and his or her ability to garner support from a diverse representation of the American populace, will be hugely important to his or her success, and even legitimacy, in the first year and beyond. The essays in the volume offer a range of ideas about how the new president can pursue that goal.

Michael Nelson draws on the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral Histories to show how past presidents have succeeded—and sometimes failed—when they sought new ways to promote varying forms of opportunity.

Richard Schragger suggests that the new president can deploy the federalist system of governance to help cities and metropolitan regions become sites of opportunity—and to build on the progress that many have already made.

Margaret Pugh O’Mara touches on a related theme in a deeply historical essay that traces how past presidential actions have created the conditions for entrepreneurship and innovation in local and regional economies (often unwittingly).

Economist Dambisa Moyo focuses on the opposite scale, examining the relationship between global inequality and inequality in the United States. She suggests that first year polices can leverage new digital technologies to empower the poor.

Other essays in the volume hone in on specific policy options available to the new president. Robert Pianta, Dean of UVA’s Curry School of Education, calls for enrolling every low income child in the U.S. in two years of high-quality preschool. Former White House domestic policy advisory Melody Barnes calls for first-year legislation to develop social capital and promote wealth creation for both the poor and middle class.

More than the specific ideas they propose, however, the essays provide something that has been all too rare in this election year: a sense of optimism and of possibility. William Galston and Peter Wehner offer two of the most sweeping essays in the volume, assessing the options for increasing mobility from perspectives on the center-left and center-right, respectively. Writing from opposite sides of the partisan divide, however, both independently call on the new president to pursue what they term an “opportunity agenda.” While they do not agree on every point of what such an agenda might look like, there is nonetheless significant overlap in their ideas.

In a similar fashion, Melody Barnes urges the new president to build a bipartisan cabinet composed of respected figures from both parties. Such opportunities for bipartisan agreement, for overcoming the division that has so paralyzed policymaking and politics in recent years, pervade the First Year project. In some cases, what is striking is common policy proposals; in others, it is the deeply shared underlying values that lead to shared goals even when specific policy mechanisms differ.

The divides that face the United States are real, but the opportunity & upward mobility volume and the rest of the First Year project reminds us that there are still ties that bind us, regardless of party, and that those ties could lead to constructive policy action.

Guian McKee is an associate professor in presidential studies at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. He is the co-editor of two volumes of the Center’s First Year Project—volume 3 on the first budget and volume 6 on opportunity and mobility. He is the author of The Problem of Jobs: Liberalism, Race, and Deindustrialization in Philadelphia (University of Chicago Press, 2008). He is currently working on a book that traces the rise of the urban health care economy in the United States during the second half of the twentieth century.