A Christian Perspective on Income Mobility

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Executive Summary

Income mobility is a fundamental aspect of our American identity. We are largely a nation of immigrants who arrived in this country poor yet became rich. Income mobility is important not only because it is a path to prosperity, but because a society with a great deal of upward income mobility is one where Christians can serve God faithfully using their diverse gifts. Yet a Christian perspective on this aspect of the “American Dream” is largely absent in economic and theological literature. This paper argues that there are three reasons why income mobility ought to be regarded as good:

  1. It was present in biblical times when God’s people were faithful and prospering.
  2. It is a means to prosperity for every person.
  3. A society with income mobility is one in which all people can serve God faithfully in their work.

A society with a great deal of income mobility needs laws to maintain economic freedom. Not surprisingly, the origin of these laws can be found in the Ten Commandments. The sixth, eighth, and ninth commandments are essential for maintaining economic freedom. While economic freedom is a broad concept, it can be simplified by focusing on four essential elements. Economic freedom is fundamentally about:

  1. personal choice
  2. voluntary exchange coordinated by markets
  3. freedom to enter and compete in markets
  4. the protection of persons and their property from aggression by others

It is not enough to say that economic freedom promotes income mobility; the fact must be shown empirically. This paper compares the economic freedom of the fifty states with recent income mobility data for the period 1981 to 2007. These data indicate that:

  • States with the largest increases in economic freedom had higher personal income growth, higher upward income mobility, and lower downward income mobility than states that did not become more economically free.
  • States that reduced government spending as a size of their economy also had higher personal income growth, higher upward income mobility, and lower downward income mobility.

Combining these results with recent trends in economic freedom within the United States indicates that the income mobility of future generations may be in jeopardy. The United States has always been one of the ten most economically free countries in the world. However, recent economic freedom rankings indicate this is no longer the case.

If we as Christians value an opportunity society with a high degree of income mobility, then it is important for us to engage in the debate concerning the high level of government spending and debt that is weighing on us and future generations. This spending and debt will reduce the income mobility of our children and grandchildren. More importantly, there will be fewer opportunities to serve God faithfully in our vocations.

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