Addressing a widening opportunity gap
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TEXT OF INTERVIEW
INTRODUCTION: In good times and bad, Americans have told themselves this is the land of opportunity —
social mobility. With hard work and pluck,
a poor person can achieve the American Dream.
This week, we’re bringing you a series called “Next American Dream” and we’re getting an international perspective. Alan Milburn is a member of the British Parliament. He advises the prime minister on Britain’s growing gap between rich and poor. Mr. Milburn, what’s the reason for that gap?
ALAN MILBURN: I think what’s happened is that more people have been able to get onto the ladder to prosperity, but because if you like, there’s a bit of a two-tier labor market now, and at the bottom end it’s so much harder for people to get onto the ladder out of adversity. You’ve had a growing gap.
RADKE: What are some reasons for the difficulty that you call it the lower tier is having?
MILBURN: Well, if I take something like getting a job in the professions, becoming a lawyer or a doctor or working in the media, or heaven help us, becoming a politician, a lot of these professions have become more and not less socially exclusive over recent years. So we’ve just published some data, which indicates that nowadays to become a doctor or a lawyer the chances are that you come from a family with far higher incomes on average than the average family. And that’s a big change from certainly when I grew up. There were more people from average income families — what President Clinton once famously called the forgotten middle class — who were producing future generations of doctors and lawyers. Nowadays, it tends to be a bit more self-perpetuating. That, if you’re born into wealth, you keep wealth; if you’re born into poverty, very often, unfortunately, you stay in poverty.
RADKE: In the states we expect social mobility to just happen in the free market. We don’t have a social mobility adviser. How do you see the government role as different from what the private sector can do?
MILBURN: In the end, the government’s job — it seems to me — in any country, is to make sure the economy works in the interest of the majority and not the minority. And it’s to make sure that if people have aspirations and abilities and aptitudes, they’re given the opportunity to realize their own aspirations to progress.
RADKE: Member of parliament Alan Milburn, thank you.
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