One can gather considerable evidence and build a pretty sound argument that the income gap between wealthy Americans and the rest of us is greater now than at any other time in the last 100 years – even greater than it was during the Depression or in the early 1900s when Teddy Roosevelt took on the Robber Barons. Indeed, today one-tenth of 1 percent of the U.S. population – a mere 13,000 families – have cornered 13 percent of the total American income, while 10 percent of the population (44 million people) live below the poverty line.
Yet most Americans aren’t especially disturbed by this inequality because, in part, they believe everyone has a shot at the riches. With a lot of hard work and a little luck anyone can climb the economic pyramid and become wealthy.
This is a common refrain among some wealthy conservatives. If the poor would just get off their dead butts and go to work, they could get rich, too. Of course, even the most staunch conservative will admit that everyone doesn’t have an equal chance of success – the ghetto black and the upper-class, Harvard-educated, white don’t have the same opportunities – but still, everyone at least has a shot at it.
There’s no shortage of astonishing success stories. Take for instance, Bill Gates. He rose from a solidly middle-class environment and became the richest man in the world.
The hope of social mobility, of rising to a higher economic class, is a cornerstone of the American Dream. If not yourself, than your kids.
Well, I’m sorry to report that the American Dream appears to be increasingly and completely divorced from reality. Dramatic upward mobility, like Bill Gates, is and always has been extremely rare. In fact, since the last recession, which we’re still climbing out of, there has been more social mobility downward than upward; that is, a far greater number of people are falling out of the middle class into the lower class than are rising on the economic ladder. The latest social science research indicates that 80 percent of the people born in poverty stay there.
However, even if the rate of upward mobility would suddenly double or triple, this isn’t going to solve our economic woes. Somehow we have to address the income inequality. We’ll always have a middle and working class, but somehow they have to get a bigger slice of the pie.
Instead of promoting the idea that everyone can rise up the economic ladder, we might do better to concentrate on merely raising everyone’s standard of living. The remarkable thing about the last half of the 20th century wasn’t the number of people who became wealthy, but rather that the middle class and working people saw their standard of living improve. For whatever reason, we’ve lost this.