Heidi Selberg, Envision Board Member and Upward Mobility Signals Team

Our team’s previous reports have shown the importance of public policy in supporting upward mobility.  Judy Nagel’s reports have outlined international comparisons, demonstrating that several government policies related to childcare, health, and other matters are critical to those countries’ higher rates of upward mobility. But what if upward mobility in the U.S. is not accelerating because our institutions are becoming weaker?

This is a premise advanced by Pavithra Suryanarayan, an Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s  School of Advanced International Studies in a blog post published in 2020, Hollowing out the state. Citing examples in India and the post-Reconstruction American South, the author discusses efforts to weaken government capacity as a means for certain groups to hold on to power. She says it is “a deliberate strategy of weakening the government’s ability to function in order to achieve ends that elites are unable to achieve through democratic channels.” The process includes challenging the credibility of formerly unquestioned government functions.

This premise raises some challenging questions.  Are our institutions really becoming weaker, as Suryanarayan postulates? If so, how does this impact policies supporting upward mobility? Or is the United States culture of self-sufficiency the major value against which policies that support upward mobility are evaluated?