American Dream & American Class

I’ve argued it earlier, that equal opportunities in the U.S. aren’t what they seem, and that the increasing divide between rich and poor is, in fact, a problem; so I was interested to read that is doing a three-week special on the subject: (free registration required)

Here’s an excerpt:

Is there an increasing divide? Wealth in the U.s. runs along a continuum, doesn’t it? I can imagine the middle of the curve (i.e. the middle class) rising and falling, but I’ve been hearing about this increasing divide for years and it’s starting to sound like the killer bees that we were warned about in 1980, and 1984, and 1988, and 1991, and 1994, and 1997…

And what’s the impact of large scale immigration on this - it could be that large amounts of poor immigrants that the US has received in the last couple decades are masking the effects of the native born middle class getting richer?

I’m sorry, I have to nitpick this. Only because I think it’s pertinent to this conversation on American Class. There is a huge difference when interpreting this statement with “…all men to be created equal”, and “…all men are created equal”, as it was originally quoted in the Declaration of Independence. The former is ambiguous, in that a reader could interpret this to mean that the wealth should be taken from the rich, and given to the poor, to make them “equal”.

Or maybe I’m overreacting.

So, as the article already suggests, denial reigns supreme then …

Not having read the article, I would imagine that it makes similar points to this one in The Economist.

If the American Dream is that anybody from any level can get to the top, then it lags behind most of the industrialised democratic world in this respect. Social mobility in the US is such that the occasional bubble rises, but the drink is largely left unstirred. A “property rights uber alles” approach is how a democracy edges towards plutocracy.

If anything, I suspect that increased education woud help with this. However, it’s rather early to panic. We don’t really know how this compares to most of US history. It might be normal, or a temporary aberration high or low.


When the NY Times and The Economist agree, I think we can safely say “yes.” :smiley:

For the divide between the middle class and the upper class, then I’m not convinced that education is the answer–both groups already are well educated.

An assumption that seems to be underlying this article is that everyone wants to move up the economic ladder but that many people are somehow prevented from doing so:

Sorry, I don’t buy it. As the article points out, we live in a society where if you work hard (and work smart) you can succeed. Many people simply don’t do this. They prefer to live on welfare or don’t go to school to improve their skills. Nothing is preventing them from finding a job or going to school, they simply choose not to do so. It’s not as if it’s more difficult to move up, it’s just that there are quite a few people who refuse to do so.

Replace “can” with “increase your chances to” and I’ll agree.

I will not agree that everyone who works hard can succeed. I don’t even know exactly what “working smart” would be, so I can’t address that.

Just from my own observations, it seems that there really are 3 classes in the US.

  1. The poor, who usually through lack of education or opportunity, and/or bad choices generally work hourly jobs and have very little in the way of assets. Retail clerks, food servers, etc… are generally in this class.

  2. The middle class. Generally educated, although hourly/non-hourly isn’t as much of an indicator here- people like surveyor crew members, tradespeople, unionized factory workers, teachers, IT people, financial analysts, etc… all fall in here. These people have moderate income (up to $200,000/yr, I’d say) and moderate assets (own a house, cars, sometimes securities, real-estate and other investments).

  3. The rich. These folks generally speaking make a significant amount of money and also have significant assets, primarily in the way of financial assets or real-estate. These are the people whose bank accounts are more for keeping score instead of being a repository for money.

I don’t believe that the poor have such insurmountable obstacles to becoming middle class- I’ve seen and heard of it happening too many times to believe otherwise. A person from the most humble beginnings can get a job paying $15/hr if he tries. That’s $31200/yr. Lower middle class, but still middle class. It’ll probably pay benefits too.

However, making that middle-class -> rich jump is tough. You either have to start out with extraordinarily good connections in a field known for paying well and get some financial help from your family, or you have to be extraordinarily successful in running and growing your own business.

That’s where the real gap seems to be- making that jump from well-to-do yuppie to truly rich.

Granted, there’s another education-related gap in the middle class, where you have college-educated people vs. non-college educated people.

I don’t agree that increased mobility is always a good thing. It’s spoken about as if more is better, period. What is ignored is that for each person going up, someone needs to go down. It sure sounds great to say that 50% of the bottom quintile moves up to the 4th, but it sounds less great to say that 50% of the 4th quintile drops down to the 5th. No matter how hard you work, 20% of the populace will be in the bottom 5th, I don’t think it is inherently better to have that fifth come from other quintiles.

There is a level of mobility that allows people who work hard and are creative to improve their situation without having people all over the scale dropping like flies to make room. I’m not convinced that the US fails to reach this level.

What matters is if the poor get opportunity to improve their lifestyle, not whether they can bump up a class and bump someone else down.

What makes you think it’s a zero-sum game? There’s no reason to believe that with the ongoing generation of wealth (note: generation, not redistribution) that people can’t rise in socio-economic status without a corresponding drop from someone else.

In other words, just because someone becomes middle class, it doesn’t follow that someone else had to become poor for it to happen.

The very way you frame that questions reflects an unstated and indefensible assumption of “American exceptionalism.” The important comparison here is not to U.S. history but to the rest of the contemporary industrialized world – because the latter, not the former, shows us what kind of society we could achieve if we tried with the tools now in existence.

The United States of Europe, by T.R. Reid (, an account of the economic and political rise of the European Union, devotes a chapter to “The European Social Model.” This chapter, like the social model itself, does not focus on “social mobility” in the sense of the poor rising to the top, but then I’ve always understood the “American Dream” to be one of basic material comfort for everyone, not extreme wealth – and the Europeans understand that at least some of the conditions for that can more equitably be provided by or through the state than the market. Europeans pay a sales tax or VAT ranging from 17.5% in the UK to 25% in Denmark and Sweden. This pays for their welfare state, including free or subsidized medical care and higher education.

You seem to assume the existence of public assistance is partly to blame for this. Quite the contrary. See above.

bump, it is a zero-sum game. There is always going to be a bottom quintile. If you are going to move people from the 5th quintile into the 4th, others are going to have to fill the 5th (quintiles assume an even distribution among 5 sections).

Soceity can, however, improve the overall conditions of the 4th and 5th quintiles relative to their current positions, without necessarily moving people from one quintile to another. So your assertion that a move from lower-middle to upper-middle doesn’t mean someone else has to move to lower-middle to fill the gap is true. The lines, however, over time, will be redrawn.

bump, you are absolutely right that reality is not a zero sum game, but the way mobility is measured is zero sum. Break incomes out into fifths, then see who is in which fifth. If one person goes from 5 to 4 and nobody goes from 4 to 5, then they are not even fifths anymore. They’ll take the guy at the bottom of 4 and move him down to 5, even if he didn’t get any worse off.

The suggestion is that since there are fewer people going from 5 to 4 that our poor have less chance to improve their lives by going “up” in economic status. It does not mention that the guy in 4 does have to move down to 5 and does not admit that this drop is as much a failure as having people stay where they are. Note how the discussion centers around the poor going up, and seems to dance around the idea of the not-poor going down.

It also does not allow that being in the bottom fifth now may not be as bad as it was for their parent’s generation, so the poor may actually be better off even if they’re not in the 4th group.

If that was the case, wouldn’t you expect western europe with it’s generous welfare system to be less socially mobile than the US?

And there is actually more social mobility in France and Denmark (and Canada) than in the U.S.

Heh, well, I hope my skepticism is understandable, since the only times we ever seem to hear about the middle class these days are in dire warnings about its shrinkage, as though the middle class had spent the last few decades in a cold swimming pool.

And I disagree that this skepticism equals “denial”.