The Great American Myth

About six months ago, the income and wealth gap in this country exploded into national consciousness. Until then, it had been discussed mostly in scholarly journals and conferences.

PCG had for a long time been urging attention to these disparities given their threat to the common good. We have already developed an educational curriculum dealing with this very topic and are bringing it to your churches.

Now there is a second—and related—issue that is going to burst forth in the same way. It is the myth of social mobility: that this country is the best place in the world to rise to the top of the economic ladder if you just work hard enough.

According to Julia Isaacs of the Brookings Institute, “There is growing evidence of less inter-generational economic mobility in the United States than in many other rich industrialized countries.” The American dream is that all children, if they seek to, will be able to surpass what their parents earned. In fact, we are near the top of the list of developed countries for which this is not true.

Children are more likely to get ahead, regardless of their starting point, in France, Germany, and Sweden; and the greatest opportunities come to those from Canada, Norway, Finland, and Denmark.

Two weeks ago, at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Evanston, I pointed out some of the startling measures of wealth and income disparity in the United States. We have the greatest income inequality after taxes and public transfers of any country ranked by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The top 20% of our population holds 85% of our wealth, the bottom 60% less than 8%.

The trend line is clear: between 1948 and 1979, average income grew by about $21,000. The richest 10% got 33% of that growth. The bottom 90% shared the rest. But between 2000 and 2007, when average income grew by $1,460, all the growth went to the richest 10%; income for the bottom 90% actually declined.

When I asked those in the Northminister audience what difference these figures might make, some were quick to point out a possible dampening of social mobility.

Is there a clear relationship between economic inequality and social mobility? Causation is difficult to track. But the figures above tell us where to start: the middle class receives an increasingly smaller share of national income than it did in 1980. Those who start in poverty are as a group becoming poorer. The wealthy are getting wealthier.

If we seek to restore social mobility, therefore, we must address two questions: what it is required to help those in deep poverty and what we can reasonably expect from those who have benefited most from our economic system?

These questions drive PCG’s agenda. From our first days we have fought for a school funding system that would provide a quality education for all children regardless of family income. We are seeking a minimum wage increase that keeps individuals out of poverty, expanded access to health care for the poor, a progressive tax system that will help us restore our social safety net, and an end to the failed War on Drugs, which has led to the incarceration of more people than any nation on earth.

The sooner we recognize the decline in social mobility in this country, the closer we will be to an honest discussion about how to achieve the common good.

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