The American Dream Versus The Luck Of Birth

[Guest article by Robert Nielsen, Ireland]

The American Dream is at odds with reality. America views itself as the “The Land of Opportunity”, the place where if only you work hard enough you will become rich. This American Dream has been the hope of millions of immigrants who come to America’s shores. Yet this dream is slowly becoming a myth. America is turning into a rigid class society where where you come from matters as much as what you know.

Americans like to pretend that there is no such thing as class. It is often assumed that all people are the same and have the same chance in life. The only division is between the hard working and the lazy. Yet studies show that half of a son’s income is determined by the income of his father. This is not the American Dream of equal opportunity, but rather the nightmare of class that only Old Europe was supposed to suffer from. The rich are born with significant advantages; America has a more rigid class system than even Britain.

The American Dream is at odds with reality.

Becoming rich and successful isn’t just about working hard, it is also due to the luck of birth. If you happen to be born Hispanic or African-American then your chances of becoming rich are significantly reduced. If you were born female or working class, then you must climb a mountain to get into the elite. Is it just a coincidence that the vast majority of CEOs are white men from privileged backgrounds?

Screen Shot 2013-01-26 at 11.54.12 AM

The chart above (taken from a study of the American Dream) shows that if you had the bad luck to be born into a poor family, you will probably stay there. Almost half of those born on the bottom stay there and almost three quarters stay in the bottom two-fifths. It is though they are born with a glass ceiling above their heads, they can see the top, but they’ll never get there. Likewise, if you had the good luck to be born into wealth, you’ll keep it. Unless you think there is some genetic difference between those at the top and those at the bottom, then you must admit there is something seriously wrong here.

America has a more rigid class system
than even Britain.

How does birth give you so many advantages? Rich parents can afford to pay for the best private schools and private tuition to ensure their children get a head start. These advantages open doors into elite schools where the future movers and shakers are. These networks are crucial and often who you know counts as much as what you know. They can lend their kids money and hold them over until they start making money.  Just as important as better education and contacts, with privilege comes confidence. The most striking feature of rich children is their level of self-confidence and belief that they can become doctors or lawyers.

If it is education, networks and confidence that keep the rich at the top, then it is the same factors that keep the poor at the bottom. With little money they cannot afford to send their children to the top schools but are stuck with the derelict under-funded schools. If you live in a working class area, you aren’t going to know many managers or employers who can help even get your foot on the labour market ladder. If your parents, didn’t know the right people, there is little chance you will.

America is bottom of the table
when it comes to social mobility.

Finally and just as important is the lack of confidence of working class people. What poor minority kid believes he will run a bank? What’s the point trying if you’re never going to win? They know the dice of life have been rolled and they’ve lost.

Americans believe the legend of the rag-to-riches stories, of those who were born poor but through hard work and intelligence made their fortune. Yet of those born in the bottom 20%, only 4% made it to the top 20%. The easiest way to become rich is to have rich parents. Hard work can only take you so far, but the race to success is not a level playing field where we all start at the same point. The path to success is a toll road. If you aren’t born to money, it’s hard to pay the toll.

America is bottom of the table when it comes to social mobility and the chances of the poor becoming rich. Although, it is never spoken of, America is in the grips of a rigid class system where the rich stay on top and the poor stay on the bottom, and elaborate barriers and privileges are created to keep things this way. If you want the American Dream, move to Denmark.

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13 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Reblogged this on Robert Nielsen and commented:
    A guest blog I wrote on social mobility in America and the failure to live up to the American Dream

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  2. You speak of “America” knowing things as if it’s a sentient being. On what basis do you say ‘America views itself as “The Land of Opportunity”‘? Probably because you’ve read that someplace. Who writes those things? Who has access to media that you’ve probably read? The well-off and privileged.

    Americans, at least the ones I speak to in person, are painfully aware of the class system in this country. Hell, I have an IQ so high it’s embarrassing to mention but have spent most of my working life doing manual labor. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gone back to school to improve my supposed employability, to no avail.

    Needless to say, I agree with most of what you say, but I have some misgivings about the confidence factor. I’ve seen highly confident young people loose that confidence as they start to realize how the deck is stacked against them. I’ve spoken to high school students who didn’t doubt their ability to do university level work, but doubted highly their ability to pay for the tuition. Is it confidence in themselves they lack or confidence in society? I bring this up because it can be another way of putting the blame on the people who are lower down on the income ladder. When I first read David Brooks’ concept of the “composure class” I couldn’t help thinking it was a desperate attempt to maintain the illusion of the meritocracy while explaining away class differences which couldn’t be account for through talent or intelligence.

    Yes, social mobility in the United States is a myth, but let’s not forget that it’s a myth that’s promulgated by the people who access to the media, not one that has risen up from the common people.

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    • Obviously there is no one America, so this is a generalisation. I am referring to its culture which will naturally involve sweeping statements. Within that it is certainly clear that among politicians and the media, the myth of the American Dream is strong and it is asserted that there is no class system. They may have an interest in saying this and ordinary people may not believe them.

      I think we are two people on the same side who are arguing for some reason. I agree with you and I am by no means trying to belittle working class people. Rather I am trying to show is that their economic condition crushes their confidence. Part of the reason why poor people aren’t CEOs is that they lack confidence to even apply for such jobs.

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  3. I am aware that social mobility is decreasing in the United States and that there is more mobility in some of the European welfare states than in the USA, but the Pew chart indicates that there is a fair amount of social mobility left. What is shows is that a majority of American adults are in different income quintiles than the ones in which they were born. A majority of those in the bottom fifth rise out of it, and a majority of those in the top fifth fall out of it.

    Maybe the result would be different if the focus was on the top 1 percent rather than the top 20 percent. George W. Bush messed up in pretty much everything he did in life, but he kept his standing in the elite class.

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    • True there is some mobility, but not much. Almost half stay on the very bottom (a ridiculously high number if you think about it), which is much more than European countries. Also those who get out of the bottom fifth, most still remain in the bottom half. The chances of getting to the top are very slim.

      I generally don’t like breaking charts into quintiles, because although they are easier to make, they obscure a lot, like the 1% as you mentioned.

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  4. […] second post was prompted by another post I read yesterday about the rigidity of the class system in the United States. The writer, […]

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  5. Reblogged this on EconoPolitics.

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  6. […] The American Dream Versus The Luck Of Birth (classwarinamerica.wordpress.com) […]

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  7. Robert, are things much different in Ireland? This is not a rhetorical question. I would be interested in knowing how you see your own country.

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    • Not as bad. Ireland is in between American and Europe, so while we’re more equal than America, we would be more unequal than continental Europe.

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    • The way I see it, the rest of the industrialized Western world is going in the same direction as the USA, but some parts of it are falling from a higher place and at a slower rate.

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    • So I don’t think Europeans and Canadians have good reason for complacency when they look at the USA.

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      • “Good reason for complacency”? I’m pretty sure those don’t exist.

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