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January 05, 2012

Myth of American Upward Mobility Punctured

Posted in: Uncategorized

We’ve been talking about income inequality lately, and tied into that is the idea of upward mobility. The United States, in the myths of cock-eyed optimists everywhere, remains the land of opportunity, where everyone can get a fair shot at greatness. But that America hasn’t existed for a while. In fact, as Jason DeParle reports, upward mobility doesn’t really exist in this country anymore.

At least five large studies in recent years have found the United States to be less mobile than comparable nations. A project led by Markus Jantti, an economist at a Swedish university, found that 42 percent of American men raised in the bottom fifth of incomes stay there as adults. That shows a level of persistent disadvantage much higher than in Denmark (25 percent) and Britain (30 percent) — a country famous for its class constraints.

Meanwhile, just 8 percent of American men at the bottom rose to the top fifth. That compares with 12 percent of the British and 14 percent of the Danes.

Despite frequent references to the United States as a classless society, about 62 percent of Americans (male and female) raised in the top fifth of incomes stay in the top two-fifths, according to research by the Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Similarly, 65 percent born in the bottom fifth stay in the bottom two-fifths.

This is the old story. Conservatives don’t want anyone to know that there’s a class war and the rich have won. So they paint this portrait of America as a Horatio Alger paradise where everyone rises up from nothing to live out their dreams. But that’s just not true anymore, if it ever was. Class matters in America. It determines the level of your opportunity. And this has gotten worse. Higher education has gotten prohibitively expensive. A hollowed-out industrial base has savaged the middle class. Income inequality means that there are wealthy executives and McJobs, and never the twain shall meet. Tax policy has been structured to make sure the wealthy hang to their money for generations to come.

People definitely have this impression – it’s part of what the Occupy movement is all about – but the evidence has been confined to academic journals. In the media you instead hear grandiloquent, dramatic stories about how you can be anything you want to be in America. Since corporate-run media executives have an interest in spreading that myth, it rarely gets challenged. But it’s really not true.


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