By Fareed Zakaria
America has long been seen–by its citizens and the world–as the place where anyone can make it. And yet studies from the past two decades all point to a different reality. Economic mobility in the U.S. is low compared with what it was in times past and with current levels in many European countries and Canada. It is particularly sticky at the two ends of the economic ladder. Rich people rarely become poor in a generation–and the poorest seldom get rich. Despite the rags-to-riches myth, such stories are the exception. A comprehensive study by the Pew Economic Mobility Project documents that in the U.S. today, few poor people become even upper middle class.
That's why President Obama's proposal to expand early-childhood education is vitally important: the idea is to provide high-quality pre-K for 4-year-olds from families whose incomes are at or below 200% of the poverty line–that is at or below $47,000 for a family of four. Children born into poor or dysfunctional families must have pathways up, especially if they have the talent to succeed. And the more we learn about neuroscience, the clearer it becomes that the human brain develops much sooner than we had believed. Early stimulation and education can be highly effective.