The Myth of Rags to Riches

In the latest version of SimCity, a computer game that let's you pretend to be an urban planner, city residents are born into an economic class and there they remain for life. This may have been done for simplicity's sake, but the scenario makes the popular computer game disturbingly similar to the situation of most Americans.

The latest report from Pew Charitable Trusts, "Purusing the American Dream," deals a stunning blow to any romantic notions of bootstrapping your way to the top. It turns out only 4 percent of those raised in the bottom 20 percent ever climb into the top 20 percent. Rather, people raised on one rung of the income ladder are likely to stay pretty close to it as adults. As the report notes, "Forty-three percent of Americans raised in the bottom quintile remain stuck in the bottom as adults and 70 percent remain below the middle class."

The report, from a non-partisan group that's far from ideological, shows that while in absolute numbers, the vast majority of Americans are making more than their parents, those increases are rarely enough to help move Americans up the class ladder. In other words, even after adjusting for inflation, most Americans make more than their parents—but few have actually been able to change their socio-economic class. (The report uses the ladder analogy, and the rungs represents 20 percent marks.) That's because the rich are getting richer faster; income growth has been disproportionately high among those who are already in the top 20 percent. That makes the distribution of classes significantly uneven, finds the report. "The difference between the size of the rungs between the two generations means that while the vast majority of Americans exceeded their parents’ family incomes, the extent of that increase—particularly at the bottom—was not always enough to move them to a different rung of the income ladder." For 20 percent of Americans, they're making more money than their parents but are still in a lower class rung. 

Among African Americans, the cycle of poverty is even worse. They're more likely than whites to get stuck in the bottom income quintile—more than half of blacks born in the bottom rung of the income ladder stay there as adults, compared with 33 percent of whites. Even more disturbing: Fifty-six percent of blacks raised in middle class families fall to the bottom two quintiles as adults. 

The report confirms what many see in their daily lives: if you're born rich or born poor, you'll probably stay that way for the rest of your life. Right now, the American Dream seems to be just that—a myth with little relation to the reality. The implications are impossible to overstate. Our country's identity is heavily rooted in the idea of economic mobility, and as far back as Alexis de Toqueville, commentators have discussed the importance of that belief. Conservative political rhetoric goes cheerfully on, of course, assuring us that anyone can be successful in this great country if they so choose. Meanwhile our public institutions are increasingly punitive to the poor: Whether it's the humiliations of getting welfare or the difficulties of escaping student loan debt, we make the poor (and increasingly, the middle class) pay for the sin of not getting born in the right rung of the ladder. 

Unlike a computer game, however, a static class system isn't inevitable and doesn't have to be permanent.

Stay tuned: Tomorrow I'll have a Q&A with Pew researchers on the report and policy proposals.

 

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