The American Obstacle Course


The American Dream is an idea that is often bandied about like a cloth in the wind. It rarely comes with any meaty substance. And perhaps it is labeled a “dream” because it is at once mystical, romantic and impossible.  Despite our wishes for America to be a place of hope and opportunity, the truth is that social mobility is rather limited. We live in a world where one’s place is often set in stone; it is determined by genes, by chance, and by the walls of society. One’s economic success is not purely determined by individual ambition or effort; rather, it is heavily influenced and often hindered by one’s environment and the inheritance that one is born into.

Despite being misleading and somewhat delusional, the idea that one can make a name for oneself through pure gumption and wit is an appealing one. My parents’ background showcases the typical immigrant success story: both my parents came from relatively poor families in rural China. My mother’s mother is illiterate. My father knows how to gut fish and slay chickens. Through a gifted program at one of China’s best universities, my parents were able to escape the farms with their brains and they eventually came to America for grad school. My dad landed a scientific research job and here we are, living on the upper crust of the middle class in Guilderland, perhaps a place as far as you can get from my mother’s dusty and sunbaked hometown. The American Dream seems to exist on some level; this is the typical story where the lone individual triumphs over adversity to achieve economic success. My father told me that if one works hard, one will be able to get by. Yet, how realistic is it to say that everyone has access to wealth and that he only needs to reach for it? If my parents had not had the right teachers to spot their talent and if they did not have access to good schooling, how far would they have gotten? If anything, their story speaks for the soundness of China’s education system. We are not as in charge of our own futures as we like to think we are. Despite the legendary grandeur of such figures as Bill Gates and Andrew Carnegie, fewer than 30 percent of American millionaires in 2012 were not self-made. Even though this may seem like a promising number, it is significantly higher than the rates in Australia and the United Kingdom; an American millionaire is much likelier to have inherited his or her wealth than a British one. Being able to climb through the ranks is not a result of the single minded effort of the individual. Rather, success often comes from preset patterns of inheritance and class.

Moreover, America, despite being lauded as a place where the weary can rest, lags behind Western Europe in relative mobility. 42% of American males born in the bottom fifth of the income distribution stay there as adults. In a perfect world, where your economic success is determined by statistical chance, that number would be 20%. In Britain it is 30%, and in Finland it is 28%. To put this in simpler terms, the chances for an American to make it from the bottom fifth to the top fifth is 1 in 13, while the chances for Brit are 1 in 8. Furthermore, a child growing up in Denmark has twice as much of a chance of making it to the top 20% of the income scale compared to an American child. America prides itself for giving its citizens valuable freedoms, but the numbers tell a different story. Clearly, economic freedom has not been achieved yet. Every day, Americans are born into families and class lines that automatically trap them from being able to easily reach for better standards of living. Fewer than 60% of Americans who grow up in the top fifth of income distribution remain within the top two fifths during adulthood. This stagnation is mirrored in the bottom of the scale; about 60% of Americans born in the bottom 20% of the income scale remain in the bottom two fifths. What class you are born into heavily influences how wealthy you will become. Although individually motivated factors such as work ethic and ambition certainly play a role in achieving greater wealth, we are limited by the situations and circumstances that life hands out to us.

The lack of social mobility in America would not be so discouraging if it were improving. However, a recent study, conducted by economists from Harvard and UC Berkeley and headed by Raj Chetty, indicates that mobility has remained virtually the same for the past 40 years or so. The study was the largest of its kind and drew from a vast amount of data. Researchers are not sure why mobility has stagnated, but they can speculate. One would think that social mobility has increased due to the lessening prevalence of discrimination; however, increasing inequality could be countering any improvements we are making. When there is a wider chasm between the rich and the poor, social mobility decreases because there is more distance to cross. This phenomenon is known as Alan Krueger’s “Great Gatsby Curve;” it has been proven that countries with more inequality have less social mobility. The fact that America is becoming increasingly unequal makes it that much harder for the individual to strike it rich. The lack of improvement in America’s social mobility shows that class lines continue to restrain the poor.

Because of the suffocating nature of America’s relatively low social mobility, where we end up economically is in many ways just a lottery, a chance, and a whim. A person’s chances of moving up socioeconomically are influenced by many outside forces, one of which is geography. Some cities, such as Salt Lake City, San Jose and San Francisco, showcase mobility rates as high as those in Western Europe. However, prospects are much grimmer in other places. Some of the lowest mobility rates are found in Mississippi, Atlanta and Charlotte. In Charlotte, only 4.4% of those in the bottom fifth of the income scale make it to the top fifth, as compared to 12.9% in San Jose. Geography plays a key role in social mobility. Even though there are hardworking, well intentioned people throughout America, those who live in certain places are much more likely to be rewarded for their efforts. Americans do not chase after opportunity; opportunity comes served on a plate in a predetermined portion. This system gives some individuals easy access to privilege, while some remain locked into poverty.

Looking at these regional differences allows researchers to pinpoint various factors that are linked to social mobility. One of them is residential segregation, based on income or race. Places with greater physical divides are correlated with strong economic divisions. Family structure and disparity within the middle class are other indicators for social mobility. Thus higher social mobility is associated with good schools, greater residential unity, strong families and higher equality within the middle class. Even though it is unclear whether these elements cause higher mobility or whether higher mobility leads to communities with these features, it is obvious that there is a strong connection between one’s ability to get richer than one’s parents and the kind of environment that one lives in. Even though Americans like to believe that they can go out and take charge of their futures through individual effort and grit, the truth is that external, environmental factors play an extremely significant role in one’s chances of economically improving.

The path to individual success is not easy. Where we live, who our parents are, and the way our hometowns are set up can make us or break us. The stereotype of the American dream suggests that life is like a treadmill; as long as we keep running we will stay alive. In reality, rising to the top requires one to dodge through a series of gates that may or may not be open. We live in a system that victimizes the poor and entrenches the rich. America should not be a shadow of the old European aristocracies; rather, the nation should be a place where circumstantial obstacles to mobility are nonexistent. Solutions are complex and extremely difficult to find, but awareness and recognition is a good first step.


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