Each for its own reasons, three of our major newspapers decided within months, and even days, of one another to publish a major series exploring class in America.
It started with the Los Angeles Times and its “New Deal” series, which debuted last October; then on May 13, the Wall Street Journal greeted readers with the first installment (subscription required) of its own “Moving Up: Challenges to the American Dream,” which startled the New York Times into rushing the opening essay of its own “Class Matters” series into print on May 15. Seldom has there been a better chance to compare and contrast the performance of three competitors widely viewed as the best of the best as they each grappled with a major treatment of the same elusive subject.
The Wall Street Journal led off its Friday the 13th sneak attack on the New York Times (newspapers love to play these Beat ya! games) with a headline (subscription required) that left no doubt as to the series’ premise: “As Rich-Poor Gap Widens in the U.S., Class Mobility Stalls, Those in Bottom Rung Enjoy Better Odds in Europe.”
The piece, by David Wessel, effectively dismantled the idea of the American Dream with evidence that social mobility in the United States is no longer what it’s cracked up to be. In fact, even “class-bound Europe” might offer more of an opportunity to scale the ranks than America. Although most Americans still cling to the idea that “their country remains a land of unbounded opportunity,” as Wessel put it, leading economists and sociologists recently have accepted that not only does it matter who your daddy is, but it matters more now than it did thirty years ago.
The Journal article gives a good overview of research in the field, highlighting new studies by Gary Becker of the University of Chicago, Gary Solon of the University of Michigan, and Bhashkar Mazumder of the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago. But lest the conclusions of Bercker, Solon and Mazumder seem too depressing, Wessel tempers his opener with fond and frequent references to the life of Benjamin Franklin, the prototypical Everyman of unfettered social mobility.
Two days later, the New York Times anteed up with a long, rather windy introduction to its own class series, an essay that was striking, among other things, for its lack of actual reporting. It, too, included the obligatory Benjamin Franklin reference, as well as quotes from Becker and Solon.
Once it was done clearing its throat for the entire length of its opener, the Times in subsequent parts of its series served up an avalanche of detailed, if largely anecdotal, reporting. But in the process it essentially abandoned the sort of critical analysis of class in America over the past few decades that the Journal and, earlier, the Los Angeles Times, had attempted. Instead, the Times set out to look at how class affects individuals. Not individuals in the aggregate, but rather a few very specific individuals: “a lawyer who rose out of an impoverished Kentucky hollow; an unemployed metal worker in Spokane, Wash., regretting his decision to skip college; a multimillionaire in Nantucket, Mass., musing over the cachet of his 200-foot yacht.” Each day brought a new topic — health, marriage, religion, education, immigration, corporate nomads — with a new set of stories to illustrate how conceptions of class color each of those topics.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with using an individual’s story as a launching pad for further analysis. Bob Davis did a great job of that in the second piece (subscription required) in the Journal series, which opens with the story of one Benjamin Franklin Baggett, a Salt Lake City resident whose famous name was not enough to keep him out of serious debt and eventual bankruptcy. Davis quickly justifies his choice of Baggett as an exemplar of a greater national problem of debt: In the past 15 years, “income for the median American household has risen only 11 percent after adjusting for inflation, while median household spending has jumped at 30 percent.” The problem is particularly evident in Utah, where 28 of every 1,000 households filed for bankruptcy last year, “twice the national average and nearly triple Utah’s rate a decade earlier.” So that leaves Baggett as a great leading man, just one of a horde who are in serious debt in Utah … and ya gotta love that his name is Benjamin Franklin.