The economic American Dream turns into a nightmare


The Center for American Progress has released a new study, "Understanding Mobility in America," which documents several generations' travels (or, as it were, non-travels) through the American class system. The new American Dream, according to this study, is for successive generations to at least stay at the economic level of their parents -- fewer and fewer have the chance for upward mobility. Some key findings:

  • Children born to the middle quintile of parental family income ($42,000 to $54,300) had about the same chance of ending up in a lower quintile than their parents (39.5 percent) as they did of moving to a higher quintile (36.5 percent). Their chances of attaining the top five percentiles of the income distribution were just 1.8 percent.

  • African American children who are born in the bottom quartile are nearly twice as likely to remain there as adults than are white children whose parents had identical incomes, and are four times less likely to attain the top quartile.

  • By international standards, the United States has an unusually low level of intergenerational mobility: our parents’ income is highly predictive of our incomes as adults. Intergenerational mobility in the United States is lower than in France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway and Denmark. Among high-income countries for which comparable estimates are available, only the United Kingdom had a lower rate of mobility than the United States. (emphasis mine)

Thus, the American Dream of leaving your children in a better situation that you found yourself in has all but vanished, perhaps it's new name should be The Canadian Dream, or The Norwegian Dream. The French Dream will certainly rub Republicans the wrong way, but can they really change that later to The Freedom Dream?

The study goes on to spot some short-term trends over the last two decades:
  • The median household was no more upwardly mobile in 2003-04, a year when GDP grew strongly, than it was it was during the recession of 1990-91.

  • Households whose adult members all worked more than 40 hours per week for two years in a row were more upwardly mobile in 1990-91 and 1997-98 than households who worked fewer hours. Yet this was not true in 2003-04, suggesting that people who work long hours on a consistent basis no longer appear to be able to generate much upward mobility for their families. (emphasis mine)

The study goes on to examine the US's extraordinarily high value of hard work and its supposedly inevitable rewards, showing that this old-time cultural standard has a long way to go to catch up with reality. The ever-increasing crippling amount of debt (see Tamara Draut's "Strapped" for excellent analysis of young people's financial struggles) and impact of various crises (see the Center for Responsible Lending's report on bankruptcy) are key factors in this volatility.

The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and middle America is falling by the wayside. The American Dream has been sacrificed at the altar of the almighty American dollar, and no amount of old-fashioned elbow grease is going to get our families back on track. Parents are working overtime to tread water; is this what your America stands for?

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