The myth of upward mobility
The downfall of the American Dream is an idea that many Americans – liberal or conservative, old and young – have latched on to as a marker of America’s decline. If we go by the standard interpretation of the American dream–that anyone from anywhere in the country, if they work hard and act with respect and dignity, can achieve success and financial security great enough to provide housing, food, education and a comfortable lifestyle for their families–we can easily see how this concept has so declined over the last four decades.
Indeed, the percentage of 30-year-olds in 1970 who were earning more than their parents had earned at 30 was a staggering 92 percent. This means that 92 percent of people were able to achieve some sort of upward mobility. Today, that number hovers around 50 percent.
This growing discrepancy is well recognized, yet I am still consistently bombarded with the rhetoric of the “lazy poor person.” The stigma against poverty, especially against poverty-stricken people of color, has consistently superseded our national acceptance of economic realities.
I believe that by taking a closer look at the statistics behind the decline in upward mobility, we can begin to combat these stigmas.
Recently, Raj Chetty–a brilliant economist held in high esteem by both liberals and conservatives–and his team charted some specific statistics involved in the decline of upward mobility.
To actually chart upward mobility, Chetty and his team focused on the percentage of American children who are born to families in the bottom 20 percent income bracket that eventually make it to the top 20 percent income bracket.
Nationwide, only 7.5 percent of these children succeed in reaching that level of upward mobility.
As a comparison, in Canada that number is about 13 percent. Since you can’t possibly have more than 20 percent of people in the top 20 percent, 13 percent is an extremely high number, with the difference in this instance between seven and 13 percent being incredibly significant.
Chetty asserts that one reason for this difference is America’s vast income inequality. In America, the top 20 percent is so wealthy and the bottom 20 percent is so impoverished, that bridging the economic gap between the two becomes extremely difficult.
However, that doesn’t fully explain the decline in upward mobility, which becomes clear when you start to look at the differences in upward mobility in different areas of the United States itself. It turns out that wealthier and more diverse areas like Salt Lake City or the San Francisco Bay Area have a 13 percent mobility rate. Conversely, in less diverse and poorer areas like Atlanta or Charlotte, North Carolina, upward mobility rates peter out at around 4.5 percent. This is, as Chetty says, “lower than any country for which we currently have data.”
This means that where you grow up will vastly affect how much upward mobility and success you will find. For better or worse, your environment shapes your life.
Cities that are segregated by income and race have much lower rates of upward mobility. This means that if you grow up in a segregated and poor neighborhood, your chances of achieving success can be almost three times lower than if you grew up in a more diverse racial and economic environment. In other words, an environment with a large middle class and less economic and racial segregation makes it easier for everyone to achieve success.
Another interesting aspect of this study is that it showed that early childhood is the time when these factors matter the most. If you move to a better area once you are a teenager or a young adult, the move will likely have little to no affect on your chances of success.
However, Chetty explains, “when you look at children who moved when they were young, you see extremely clearly that they are doing dramatically better today as adults. They are earning 30 percent more, they are 27 percent more likely to go to college, they’re 30 percent less likely to become single parents.”
This dissection is essentially saying that the American dream is not dead. It is only closed off to people who live in poorer, more racially segregated areas. Just because a certain individual was able to rise to the top does not mean a similar (or even identical) individual in a different area will be able to do the same thing.
When we consider poverty, I hope that we can consider these findings as well and agree that wealth and success are the result of a vast array of factors–many of them having to do with where you were born–and not just about who is a good person or who works hard.
Christin Howard is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.