“It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” ~George Carlin (1937- 2008)
You hear it so much that you accept it as a given: no nation on earth affords its people greater opportunities for upward economic mobility than the ‘Land of Opportunity’, these United States of America.
Problem is, that’s just not true.
Lately there’s been a lot of talk about the dying American dream. Once upon a time, not that long ago, it was assumed that each new generation of American adults would enjoy a better standard of living than their parents. Until recently, this was true.
According to the New York Times, Americans enjoy less economic mobility than do Canadians and most Western Europeans. This has been a hot topic among academics and progressives for some time; now even hard-core conservatives admit that it’s true.
It doesn’t get much more conservative than GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum. The former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania has raised eyebrows and ire by voicing his support for income inequality. But in fairness, what Santorum meant when he said he was “for income inequality” was that he’s a strong supporter of “equality of opportunity.” Fair enough. But even Santorum admits that America is falling behind in the opportunity standings.
Upward mobility, Santorum heretically acknowledged, “is actually greater… in Europe than it is in America.”
The National Review, one of the holiest publications in the conservative universe, observed: “Most Western European and English-speaking nations have higher rates of mobility” than the United States.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), one of the most influential conservative lawmakers in the nation, admitted that “mobility from the very bottom up [is] where the United States lags behind.”
“It’s becoming conventional wisdom that the U.S. does not have as much mobility as most other advanced countries,” Isabel V. Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution, told the New York Times. “I don’t think you’ll find too many people who will argue with that.”
Study after study has confirmed that Americans are indeed lagging behind Canadians and Europeans in upward economic mobility. Swedish economist Markus Jantti led a project that found that 42% of U.S. men who grew up in the bottom income quintile remain there when they’re adults. In Denmark, that figure is 25%. In Britain, it’s 30%. Jantti’s study found that only 8% of American men in the bottom quintile rose to the top fifth. In Denmark, 14% did. In Britain, 12% did.
The Economic Mobility Project at Pew Charitable Trustsconducted a study of their own that determined that fully 62% of all Americans raised in the top economic quintile remained in the top two fifths, while 65% born in the bottom quintile remained in the bottom two fifths. Pew also found that 36% of Americans who were raised in the middle quintile of incomes moved up as adults, 23% stayed at the same level and 41% moved down the economic ladder.
Miles Corak, an economist at the University of Ottawa in Canada, found that just 16% of Canadian men who grew up in the bottom 10% of incomes remained there as adults, while 22% of Americans did. Corak pored over data gathered over the course of more than 50 studies in nine countries and concluded that Canada, Norway, Finland and Denmark were the most economically mobile, while the U.S. and Britain were virtually tied at the bottom.
Conservatives are often loth to discuss income inequality, dismissing it as necessary and irrelevant since, in their view, anyone in this country who works hard enough has a fair shot at climbing the proverbial ladder. But nowadays it is becoming increasingly apparent that not only is the U.S. less equal, it is less mobile as well. That has alarmed many conservatives who do, after all, love their country.
“Republicans will not feel compelled to talk about income inequality,” John Bridgeland, a former aide to President George W. Bush, told the New York Times. “But they will feel a need to talk about a lack of mobility — a lack of access to the American Dream.”
The causes of America’s declining economic mobility are many. While the social democracies of Europe do a fine job of providing for the needs of their people, the United States, steeped in the mythology of rugged individualism and up-by-your-bootstraps self-sufficiency, lacks an adequate safety net. Poor Americans are also more likely to be raised by single mothers, which as conservatives correctly point out usually places them at a decided disadvantage. American workers are less unionized that their Canadian and European counterparts. Skyrocketing incarceration rates (the highest in the world) and a centuries-old legacy of racism also factor heavily in the equation.
“The bottom fifth in the U.S. looks very different from the bottom fifth in other countries,” Scott Winship, a researcher at the Brookings Institution, told the New York Times. “Poor Americans have to work their way up from a lower floor.”
And, as the Times points out, the “sheer magnitude of the gaps between rich and the rest” make it harder for those on the bottom to rise.
While the news is bad, the fact that even ultra-conservatives are acknowledging and discussing the opportunity gap is a refreshing change. Chalk that up to the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement and the awareness of economic inequality it has raised. That America’s faltering mobility has alarmed many on the right is also cause for optimism. Now if they would only do something about it…