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Bring back the American Dream? It’s not that hard.

The problem isn't lack of knowledge on what to do, but partisan arguments that ignore common-sense consensus. America needs an activist government and individual responsibility. It needs immediate job creation, and over the long term, debt reduction and stronger families.

An Occupy Wall Street protester wipes sweat from her face on July 5 in Philadelphia. Occupy groups across the country continue to protest economic inequality. Op-Ed contributor Isabel Sawhill says '[Mitt Romney's and President Obama's] views are not all that different, and few people would disagree with the need for people to both play by the rules and live in a society that provides a fair shot at climbing the opportunity ladder.'

Matt Rourke/AP

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Restoring opportunity in the United States is not terribly complicated. It will require an activist government and individual responsibility. That means a strong focus on job creation right now, combined with efforts to reduce debt, improve education, and strengthen families over the longer-run.

Success on these fronts is undermined not by a lack of knowledge about what to do, but by partisan arguments that ignore the kind of common-sense consensus that might otherwise prevail.

An update of my earlier work on economic mobility in the US, coauthored with Julia Isaacs and Ron Haskins and recently released by the Pew Charitable Trusts, confirms that there is less economic mobility in America than many believe, especially at the top and bottom of the distribution of income and wealth.

A child’s chances of ending up in the middle class or above that level are more than twice as high for those born into an affluent family (the top 20 percent) as for those born in a poor family (the bottom 20 percent).

President Obama has given this issue prominent attention, especially in the speech he gave in Osawatomie, Kan., on Dec. 6 last year. He emphasized the importance of working hard and playing by the rules but stressed that those who do so should have a “fair shot” at the American Dream.

Former Gov. Mitt Romney’s position is not terribly different, although, in deference to his more conservative base, he stresses the need for greater personal responsibility and playing by the rules as the best route to success in life.

In a speech at Liberty University on May 12, again citing Brookings research, he noted that the chance of achieving the American Dream is greatly enhanced if a person does just three things: finishes high school (at least), works full-time, and waits to have children until marriage. Those who do all three things have a 74 percent chance of joining the middle class.


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