The ‘American Dream’ is pervasive in our collective discourse and consciousness. Rooted in the founding documents and political mythology of the United States, it evokes an ethos of equal opportunity, regardless of one’s social class or original circumstance. It’s an optimistic ideal that people across the country and from all walks of life continue to value today; for millions of Americans however, that dream is more myth than reality. A new study from the Pew Research Center set out to evaluate a core component of the American Dream state by state – are workers climbing the economic ladder over their lifetime? Oklahoma ranked near the bottom among states in terms of the economic mobility of its residents.
The Pew study explored the prospects for economic advancement during Oklahomans’ prime working years, between ages 35 and 49. Economic advancement was measured quite simply by a person’s earnings. Basically, did an individual’s earnings increase over time, and if so, by how much? In terms of simple ‘absolute mobility,’ Oklahoma residents had less economic mobility on average than residents of most other states – with the exception of Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina, and West Virginia.
The study then compared a person’s economic mobility relative to their peers; of those who began their careers earning below the median income, how many were able to work their way up the economic ladder and achieve earnings on par with those who began their careers above the median income marker. This relative mobility measure captures residents’ movement up or down the earnings ladder throughout their working life. This 3 minute animation from Pew illustrates absolute and relative mobility in the context of ‘American Dream’ teleology:
Again, Oklahoma lagged behind most other states in its residents’ ability to move up the economic ladder. In fact, we ranked 9th in percentage of residents who ended up on a lower rung of the economic ladder at the end of their prime working years, then they were at the beginning. This map shows the states with best and worst records on economic mobility:
There are two reasons Oklahoma is such an economically immobile place to live: low educational attainment and an overabundance of low-wage employment. The share of Oklahomans completing college has lagged behind the rest of the country for decades and in the last twenty years we’ve fallen even further behind. Since education and earnings are highly correlated, a poorly educated state has lower overall earning potential. Additionally, one in three jobs in Oklahoma is a low-wage job. We rank 6th nationally in the share of employment that is classified as ‘low-wage,’ with median annual pay below $21,954.
How do we boost educational attainment and employment opportunity? For most people, vocational or technical school, community college, or a 4-year university is a prerequisite to economic advancement. Keeping tuition at our public college and career tech centers low, by fully funding higher education, is critical to ensuring that residents from all walks of life enjoy an equal chance at success. Similarly, economic development should prioritize growing the number of high-quality, living wage employment opportunities. Our public development dollars are best spent on ventures that lift the earning potential of low and middle income Oklahomans through job training, apprenticeships, and targeted placement programs for unemployed, underemployed, and dislocated workers. Making the American dream a reality for most Oklahomans means investing in education and employment.