• Waking up from the American dream
    March 18,2012

    In a classic 12-step program, the first step toward recovery requires the affected individual to admit that he or she has a problem. Despite the publicity connected with the Occupy movement, far too many Americans remain reluctant to acknowledge that inequality in our society is a serious issue and instead persist in believing in the myth of the American dream.

    At its core, the American dream assumes the existence of widespread economic opportunity. This implies that the chances for success do not depend on family background but rather on individual merit. This assumption is demonstrably false, however.

    Many Americans will be shocked to learn that what we achieve in life depends highly on the sort of family we come from. Consider the following statistics from a recent, nationally representative survey of Americans. If both of your parents have at least a bachelor’s degree, your chance of finishing one is about 70 percent. But if neither of your parents finished high school, your chance of completing at least a bachelor’s is less than 15 percent.

    The disparity in these chances is a direct measure of the extent of inequality of opportunity in our country. It is large and consequential, especially given the importance we attach to educational attainment. Moreover, contrary to Charles Murray’s claims about how the lack of opportunity results from the collapse of America’s “founding virtues,” this disparity has changed little since 1970 and actually declined between 1960 and 1970.

    The United States is thus a distinctly class society, in that where we come from matters a great deal. And in case you think you can find solace in the claim that class is less operative here than in other industrialized countries, consider this: High-quality historical research shows that opportunities for social mobility in America have been similar to those in other industrialized countries since the mid-19th century, and more recent work indicates that the chance to move up the economic ladder is now lower in the United States than in a number of other wealthy societies. To cite just one example, Danes are now three times more mobile than Americans.

    Such inequality of opportunity would not be so consequential if the vast majority of Americans enjoyed a comfortable standard of living. But they do not. The U.S. Census Bureau has recently completed a comprehensive update of the methodology it uses to measure poverty. New calculations indicate that nearly half (47.9 percent) of Americans are either poor or nearly poor. This number makes eminent sense, when one ponders the fact that the median household income in the United States in 2010 was only $49,445 before taxes. I invite you to try to devise a household budget based on such a modest figure.

    If America is indeed exceptional, it is because we now have less opportunity than our cousins to the north and across the Atlantic. This is not the sort of exceptionalism to be proud of, and we must find a way to ameliorate it. I shall have more to say about solutions to this problem in future columns.

    Daniel H. Krymkowski is a professor of sociology at the University of Vermont.

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