Few topics are more frequently debated in American public life than wealth inequality and social mobility. As political scientist Charles Murray argued in Coming Apart, and recently reminded us in the Wall Street Journal, many feel that “American egalitarianism is on its last legs.” This intuition is not Murray’s alone: multiple sociologists, economists, and journalists have noted that the distance between the “haves” and “have-nots” in America appears to be enduring, growing dramatically, and increasingly difficult to traverse. And this has only exacerbated the degree of pessimism that permeates our public discourse.
Debates about social mobility frequently turn on competing visions of the resources that should be required for citizens to improve their lot in life. These are debates about what we, as citizens, owe one another—particularly what forms of social, economic, familial, and moral support can and should be extended to fellow citizens pursuing a better life. These are robust and important debates, and the fact that they have been with us since the American founding makes it more than likely that they will continue for generations to come.
But what about downward social mobility—the ease with which those who have successfully climbed the ladder can fall back down?
Stories of downward social mobility are not well-known to us.
Shifting our focus from the assistance necessary for self-improvement to the protection necessary to maintaining it reveals just how thin our public conversation about citizenship currently is. To take just one example, notice how little imagination has been given by leading presidential candidates to the social supports needed to address the heroin epidemic in certain pockets of the country. This could be for any number of reasons, but one is that stories of downward social mobility are not well-known to us. We are, for the most part, far more enamored with stories of achievement than stories of decline.
In a fascinating series of profiles for The Washington Post, Terrence McCoy has sought to address this lacuna in our public imagination. His most recent piece is titled “The best African American figure skater in history is now bankrupt and living in a trailer.” In it, McCoy tells the tale of Debi Thomas, who “was once so confident in her abilities that she simultaneously studied at Stanford University and trained for the Olympics.” She was “once so lauded for the lithe beauty she expressed on the ice that Time magazine put her on its cover and ABC’s ‘Wide World of Sports’ named her athlete of the year in 1986.” After winning the world championship in 1986 and the bronze medal in the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, Thomas studied medicine at Northwestern, became an orthopedic surgeon, married another professional, and started a family. But throughout residency and the early parts of her medical career, Thomas struggled to transfer her “Olympian mentality” to the wider working world, eventually leading her to the conclusion that self-employment was her best vocational option. Her own delusions of grandeur, ongoing struggles to treat her mental illness, and general lack of stability led Thomas to a series of domestic disputes that resulted in the loss of her medical license and her relocation to a trailer in a deeply impoverished portion of Southwest Virginia’s coal country.
Many of these themes permeate McCoy’s profile of one of the University of Virginia’s greatest female athletes, Schuye LaRue. In McCoy’s telling:
LaRue was once one of the most promising basketball players in the country. Named ACC Rookie of the Year while at the University of Virginia, she was later selected to the All-ACC First Team and still holds a school record for rebounds. Famed basketball coach Pat Summitt called her “one of the most impressive freshmen in the country.” The Los Angeles Sparks selected her 27th overall in the 2003 draft.
Schuye’s journey from promising athlete to one of Washington D.C.’s roughly 7,000 homeless citizens includes two major events: difficulty treating her schizophrenia, and the tragic killing of her younger brother Nathaniel, with whom Schuye was close. As with many homeless people, the mundane cruelties of life on the streets are multiplied by run-ins with the law and the ongoing trials of living with undertreated illness.
The relation of the law and mental illness is at the heart of McCoy’s two pieces on D.C. native Alfred Postell. The first, titled “The homeless man who went to Harvard Law with John Roberts,” surveys what McCoy calls the “ultimate class leveler” of mental illness. According to McCoy, “listening to [Postell] talk about his life is like dive-bombing into a dream. Everything at first sounds normal. But things quickly fall into disorder. The chronology hiccups. Incongruous thoughts collide.”
But this has not always been so. As McCoy tells the tale, Postell’s life was once an impressive succession of academic and professional achievements. He says:
[Postell] wanted more than what his parents had. So after graduating from the District’s Coolidge High School, he juggled a day job while working his way through an associate’s degree at Strayer College. Achievement fed achievement. He passed the CPA exam and took a job as the audit manager at an accounting firm, Lucas and Tucker, where he said he pulled in an annual salary of more than $50,000—big money back then. But Postell wasn’t done. He went to the University of Maryland for a degree in economics. Then, even before he’d graduated, he clacked off an application to Harvard Law—and was accepted.
That Postell now sleeps on park benches while his Harvard classmates sit on Supreme Court benches should cause us to consider the fragility that marks our lives. As McCoy’s follow-up to the original story makes plain, there is rarely, if ever, a single cause for such decline nor a single solution.
When we think of “social mobility” we almost always characterize the problem as impediments to upward mobility. We think, in other words, that the most fundamental social problem is that those without (education, opportunity, privilege, etc.) have limited or insufficient access to the resources they need in order to improve their plight. And, of course, this is true. But by telling the stories of Debi Thomas, Schuye LaRue, and Alfred Postell, Terrence McCoy highlights the shadowy side of social mobility in America—namely, just how easy downward mobility has become. If the way up is easy to discern yet difficult to travel, the way down is just the opposite.