Decline of social mobility in America : Social Development

Decline of social mobility in America

width="230"AMERICANS are an optimistic lot. If there is one thing they believe in above all, it is the ability to move ahead. In poll after poll, a majority reject the notion that success is determined by forces beyond their control. In early 2009, hardly a sunny period, 71% still agreed that hard work and personal skill are the main ingredients for success. A high degree of social mobility has always defined American culture, from the work of Alexis de Tocqueville and Horatio Alger to the remarkable story of Barack Obama himself.

But the reality for most Americans is becoming more complicated. The recession came at the end of a period marked by record levels of inequality. Many Americans, lacking true upward mobility, bought its trappings, such as a bigger house or better car. Disaster duly followed. As a result, American optimism has been pierced by doubt. In a new poll for The Economist by YouGov, 36% of respondents said they had less opportunity than their parents did, compared with 39% who thought they had more. Half thought the next generation would have a lower standard of living, double the share that thought living standards would rise. As the country recovers, two problems cloud its future. Rates of social mobility are unlikely to grow. Inequality, however, may widen even further.

These trends have been building up for years. In 1963 John Kennedy declared that a rising tide lifts all boats. Indeed, in 1963 this was true. Between 1947 and 1973, the typical American family's income roughly doubled in real terms. Between 1973 and 2007, however, it grew by only 22%—and this thanks to the rise of two-worker households. In 2004 men in their 30s earned 12% less in real terms than their fathers did at a similar age, according to Pew's Economic Mobility Project. This has been blamed on everything from immigration to trade to declining rates of unionisation. But the driving factor, most economists agree, has been technological change and the consequent lowering of demand for middle-skilled workers.

The most highly skilled, meanwhile, have stuffed their pockets happily. Between 1970 and 2008 the Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, grew from 0.39 to 0.47. In mid-2008 the typical family's income was lower than it had been in 2000. The richest 10% earned nearly half of all income, surpassing even their share in 1928, the year before the Great Crash.

Compared with people in other rich countries, Americans tend to accept relatively high levels of income inequality because they believe they may move up over time. The evidence is that America does offer opportunity; but not nearly as much as its citizens believe.

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