Mobility, the 47%, and the Myth of Opportunity

John Jacobsen looks at U.S. Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney's recent remarks on the 47%, and discusses the concept of "opportunity" in American political discourse.

Submitted by John E Jacobsen on September 25, 2012

“…there are 47 percent [of Americans]… who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that’s an entitlement… my job [in winning the presidency] is not to worry about those people — I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” – Mitt Romney

A leaked video of Republican Presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, has caught the attention of the country this week, validating for many their suspicion of the nominee’s contempt for poor and working people.

The video, possibly leaked by a server at a private, $40,000 per plate fundraiser for the candidate, contains clips in which Romney makes controversial remarks regarding the bottom 47% of income earners in the United States.

The remarks, and the responses from the Obama campaign, provide an interesting lens through which to view both candidates – particularly their takes on the concept of opportunity.
Romney’s remarks make reference to it it several times – when he talks about “entitlements,” or about “personal responsibility,” he is simply parroting the typical conservative talking points on the subject.

Likewise, in an interview with David Letterman this week, President Obama said of the leaked video, “We’ve got some obligations to each other, and there’s nothing wrong with us giving each other a helping hand so that single mom’s kid, even after all the work she’s done, can afford to go to college.”

The dance between these two views on opportunity – the conservative, in which we encourage people to take “individual responsibility,” or the liberal, in which we give some a “helping hand” – has been a persistent one since the beginning of the election.

In an opinion piece for USA Today last year, titled What Kind of Society Does America Want?, Mitt Romney urged Americans to support his call to create a grand new “opportunity society.”

This new society, in which “free people… choose whether or not to pursue education,” or “engage in hard work,” may no doubt remind readers of Newt Gingrich’s own call in 1984 for a “Conservative Opportunity Society,” or even Reagan’s “GOP – Grand Opportunity Party.”

President Obama, in his January State of the Union address, even went so far as to say that restoring opportunity to Americans has become “the defining issue of our time.”

The language is certainly uplifting, but just what does opportunity really mean in a country of 12.5 million unemployed people?

Defining opportunity:

Sociologists, economists and all manner of social analysts routinely study the economic rise and fall of various demographics. They pour over mounds of information gathered by government agencies, non-profits, and private firms, sorting out how incomes grow or shrink between generations, between peers, or within families.

“Opportunity” – or social mobility – to them is not just a lofty political ideal, but a quantifiable set of economic indicators and the relative measurement of various demographics’ economic movement within society.

For many reformers, then, the goal is to help us approach a society in which every person has a statistically equal chance of climbing to the top of the economic ladder as they do of tumbling to the bottom. In this hypothetical society, neither race, nor sex, nor our parents’ income would have any role to play in determining where we eventually wound up in the income hierarchy; or, in the words of the president, an America in which “the doors of opportunity remain open to all.”
There is, of course, nothing wrong in wanting people to be pulled out of poverty. In fact, there is something very nice about it, which is precisely why the stories of the self made American, or the rags to riches immigrant, are such popular narratives. But there is a problem in framing the issue of poverty as a matter of social mobility.

The narrative of opportunity asks why is he poor, or why is she poor, never “why is there poverty generally?” It frames the problem incorrectly, transforming it from a structural issue to an individual one.

When politicians or media pundits talk about social mobility, we need to understand that what they’re really talking about is poverty. More specifically, they’re talking about how they are going to justify it.

The entire concept of opportunity, then, should rightly be regarded as an alien ideal to us, as it does not even pretend to want to abolish poverty, but merely to “make it fair.”

A problem of perspective:

The problem of poverty is more easily understood when we approach it not from the perspective of opportunity, but through the lens of anti-capitalism.

To be clear, poverty does not exist because there is a shortage of “opportunities,” whether that be the fault of government intervention or a lack of “personal responsibility” on our part.

Poverty is the result of the natural functioning of capitalism, an economic system in which the material abundance our society creates must be made artificially scarce to larger and larger portions of the population. It must be so under a class system such as ours, or else the very basis on which our economy rests – the accumulation of capital – would fall apart.

We have, for example, many tens of thousands of more houses in the United States than we have people who need houses. If we were to begin simply allowing people to move in to these houses without paying – despite the clear benefits of allowing free access to these properties – it isn’t hard to see that the housing market would essentially have been obliterated.

Politicians like Mitt Romney and Barack Obama show their true roles when they frame the debate over poverty as questions of “personal responsibility,” “helping hands,” or “opportunity.” They seek not to change the class system – not get rid of poverty - but instead merely to manage its crisis and maintain its social peace.

We have to conclude that the language of opportunity, as it is used in mainstream political discourse, far from inspiring us to great heights, rather condemns us to self-loathing.