The Ugly Truth About the American Dream

September 16th, 2011 at 1:14 pm | 50 Comments |

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The promise of upward economic mobility is central to the American Dream. Marco Rubio invoked it at CPAC in 2010 with stirring language:

[America is] the only place in the world where it doesn’t matter who your parents were or where you came from. You can be anything you are willing to work hard to be. The result is the only economy in the world where poor people with a better idea and a strong work ethic can compete and succeed against rich people in the marketplace and competition. And the result is the most reliable defender of freedom in the history of the world.

This is critical to the conservative narrative about America and it justifies many of the policies which call for a less active government. Unfortunately, the truth is does not match the rhetoric. It turns that the American Dream of upward mobility is not equally within reach of everyone.

The Pew Economic Mobility  Project has published a new study which looked at the factors which lead to downward mobility.

Previous research helped to lay out the broad contours of what is known about economic mobility. A 2008 Pew report discussed the lack of economic mobility among African Americans:

A startling 45 percent of black children whose parents were solidly middle income end up falling to the bottom income quintile, while only 16 percent of white children born to parents in the middle make this descent.

Similar trends are found in other income groups as well. In another disturbing example, 48 percent of black children and 20 percent of white children descend from the second-to-bottom income group to the bottom income group. In addition, black children who start at the bottom are more likely to remain there than white children (54 percent compared to 31 percent).

The 2011 study (which used a different sample group) wanted to ask a broader question: what factors are causing this to occur? The study looked at different measures of absolute and relative income inequality and determined which factors were the most significant in downward mobility.

(One of several charts associated with the story, the rest can be seen here.)

Pew’s Economic Mobility Project Manager Erin Currier explained to FrumForum that the factors which had the most impact in determining downward mobility were levels of education and whether or not individuals got and stayed married. While perhaps not unexpected or controversial findings, the report underscores the importance of these factors. As Currier explains:

Regardless of how we measured downward mobility … we see the same pattern emerging. Post-secondary education and higher educational attainment matters, no matter how you measure downward mobility. This is a key reason why some people might be able to maintain their middle class status and some may not.

The second key finding is that marital status is a key piece that explains why people stay in the middle class or fall out of it.

In this current generation of adults, we have seen a huge increase in two-earner familier. It’s very important for family incomes that woman have entered the labor market.

When you look at people who become divorce, separated, or who are never married, it’s less surprising that they would have less of a chance of staying in the middle class than someone who is married.

While this is not surprising, it is helpful to be reminded of what can undermine upward mobility, and not simply to assume that upward mobility is equally likely for everyone, or even worse, to trot out blasé arguments that the poor in America are at least fortunate enough to own microwaves and cable TV.

Recent Posts by Noah Kristula-Green

50 Comments so far ↓

  • valkayec

    Noah, one thing missed in your article, and which I would take exception to the comments by Rubio, is that “mobility” in the US now is far less than even in Europe. The US rates well down on the scale of upward social mobility, the ability to start up a new business, or even the ability to maintain one’s current status. For years, we’ve kept saying the US is the only place where someone born poor can achieve their dreams of rising to the top, but the actual data shows that for the last couple of decades that possibility – once true in the US – has slowly shut down.

    If politicians want that ideal to become reality again, they need to stop talking what used to be and start thinking about how to create that reality again…and, honestly, I don’t see in any of the current GOP policy ideas anything that will make that ideal once again a reality.

  • JohnMcC

    Mr K-Green, it is good that you note the Heritage Institute’s obtuseness in claiming that access to household appliances means there is no poverty in the US. If only you had also recognized that Sen Rubio is equally wrong. The US trails Europe by a large amount in measurements of social mobility. A link if you’re interested:

    The “American Dream” is a fairy tale we read just before we put ourselves to sleep.

    • Chris Balsz

      What are the percentages for moving from lowest quintile to 2nd-lowest and 3rd-lowest?

      • mikewaz

        Tom Hertz did a study for American University; part of the results were a table comparing a parent’s income quintile in 1967-1971 to a child’s income quintile in 1994-2000. The report is at To specifically answer your question, he found the probability of a child born to a parent in the lowest quintile reaching the second quintile to be 24%, and the probability of them reaching the third quintile to be 15.5%.

        • Chris Balsz

          First off, let’s be clear we’re measuring what people have done, not what they could do.

          Secondly, if 8% of kids in the lowest quintile reach the top quintile, 24% reach the second, and 15% reach the third, that’s 47% that a kid in the lowest quintile ending up in the top 3/5ths.

        • indy

          Secondly, if 8% of kids in the lowest quintile reach the top quintile, 24% reach the second, and 15% reach the third, that’s 47% that a kid in the lowest quintile ending up in the top 3/5ths.

          As usual, you are wrong.

          41.5% of children born in the bottom quintile remained in the bottom quintile.

          24% made to the second quintile.

          15.5% made it to third.

          and the remaining 19% made it to the 4th OR 5th quintile.

          The top 3 quintiles account for 34.5% (15.5%+19%) and NOT 47% and 65.5% remained in the bottom 2 quintiles.

        • Chris Balsz

          Indy, you’ve got to add 3 scores to get the sum of the top three quintiles.

    • Redrabbit

      Or, as George Carlin put it…

      “We call it the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it!”

  • Saladdin

    Ahhh, Marco Rubio, promulgator of empty rhetoric.

    • Redrabbit

      This is almost as bad as his rhetoric on foreign policy issues.

      • Saladdin

        @Redrabbit, almost, but not quite as empty. How do you speak about foreign policy and not mention the Euro crisis? China only gets one mention? WTF? Pure pablum. If this guy is the best the GOP can offer in terms of rhetoric, this is pathetic.

        • Redrabbit

          How does he do it?
          I know you were just asking that rhetorically, but there is a pretty clear answer.

          Rubio is just a neocon hack living in the past. His obsessions are Cuba and the laundry list of dictators that the neocon warmongers hated.

          His entire foreign policy world view is rooted in the cold war and the ‘war on terror’.

          Besides. The things you mention, the Euro crisis, China, and several others that could be listed, are problems that cannot be solved by military force. Those sort of problems don’t even register for hawks like Rubio, who only see foreign policy as a vehicle for ‘national greatness’.

  • nuser

    “America is the only place in the world ….” Really? Rather offensive to most of the countries in the world.
    Mr. Green’s article has merit and honesty in it , how refreshing!

  • Primrose

    +1 all.

  • think4yourself

    Strong facts in NKG’s article, but I don’t like the title. The fact is there is still upward mobility in America, it’s just not spread evenly across the board. The recession of course has meant there has been almost no upward mobility for anyone (except the wealthy have become wealthier), but that is a temporary situation, our economy will eventually right itself and mobility will increase.

    It would be great if we could have a conversation about how to stimulate mobility in those groups that tend to be stuck, especially African-Americans, low education, non-married households (I saw something else today that showed of female single-parents 45% were below the poverty line, 24% of single fathers and 9% of married’s with kids).

    This is a difficult conversation to have as the Right often blames “illigitimate, Kenyan, carpetbaggers” (thanks Smarg), etc., while African-American thought leaders such as Michael Dyson believe that people of color continue to be owed assistance due to persistent, ongoing discrimination. In my view, neither approach leads to groups achieving more, which is good for all America.

    How do those African-American and Hispanic communities go from generational patterns of poverty of income, education and ideas; to growing, participating members of society? We see other cultures (notably Asian, but certainly others) come to America and thrive.

    • Banty

      “How do those African-American and Hispanic communities go from generational patterns of poverty of income, education and ideas; to growing, participating members of society? We see other cultures (notably Asian, but certainly others) come to America and thrive.”

      This is an area I think both the right and the left have something useful to say. It’s complex, and it’s unfortunately discussed as if there are only two ‘sides’.

      Immigrants from east and south Asia commonly have family resources to draw upon. We don’t see low-income Asians immigrating here generally, not for some time. These family resources abroad help immigrant families here both monetarily, and in other ways. You can hardly stop a Bengali grandmother of a certain class, from going to America to take care of her American-born grandchildren, if it will enable the parents to succeed in business or professions. This is what I observe among the Asian born engineers I have worked with for decades. If an African-American or Hispanic family has always barely scraped by, as is common, there won’t be that down payment coming from the parents of a newly married couple, as seems to be almost routine for a lot of immigrant groups. American whites are in between; they have more resources, but not quite these cultural familial ties of duty.

      On the other hand, African-American and some Hispanic communities have not emphasized education and certain values as more successful immigrant groups have, and it shows. Immigrants from the West Indies, also Black, and, while not impoverished, don’t have much family resource to draw upon, but still are much more successful than African Americans in this country. The difference is in their educational levels and work ethic.

  • sinz54

    We conservatives don’t need reminding that broken homes (the more P.C. term is “single-parent homes”) are not good for the rearing of children.

    Many liberal ideas have fallen flat over the decades. But one of the worst “reforms” of all was no-fault divorce. No-fault divorce–not same-sex marriage–dealt the biggest crippling blow to the institution of marriage.

    Time was when to get divorced, you actually needed a credible reason–marital infidelity, spousal abuse, violence, drugs, crime. Now it’s just a lifestyle change: You just don’t feel like living together, you just split. And the children be damned.

    • Oldskool

      “We conservatives don’t need reminding that broken homes are not good for the rearing of children.”

      The irony of your statement is that most divorces take place in red states. Likewise for most of the other bad statistics.

      • LauraNo

        Teen-age pregnancies, unwed mothers, reading levels, use of porn, poverty, lack of health insurance, etc. I don’t know why people don’t get the heck out of those red states.

    • Watusie

      Why is it that the party of Ronald Reagan, John McCain, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, Rudy Gulliani, etc. etc. etc. is always blaming libruls for divorce? Those 6 men have 15 marriages among them – which ones were the sacred ones?

      • Dex

        Karl Rove
        Mitch McConnell
        Rupert Murdoch
        Roger Ailes
        Kay Bailey Hutchinson
        Mark Sanford

        Sinz, can you comb through the details of each one and report back on which ones were “reasonable” and which ones were done just to fuck up the kids on purpose?

        I mean, that’s not a governmental overreach, is it? To have some governmental official tell, say, Rupert Murdoch that yes, he can divorce his wife because he wants to marry someone else and then turn around and tell his cleaning lady that now, she has to stand by her mean, lazy, coach potato of a husband “for the good of the children”?

    • Redrabbit

      The biggest blow to marriage has been income stagnation, which has put great strain on blue collar and less skilled middle class Americans.

      • Chris Balsz

        Compared to what, the Great Depression era, or the dot-com boom era? Divorce is more acceptable to our generation than ever before.

        • Watusie

          I guess it is particularly “acceptable” to Republicans – since 1980 3 of the 5 men you’ve nominated as your presidential candidate have been divorced. Don’t know how you can stand it.

        • Redrabbit

          Stagnant wages were still present during the dot com boom. That boom papered over some of the problems, but it did not last. Those who saw the most benefit of that boom were white collar workers and parts of the service economy. Blue collar workers saw some benefit, but it was a bit more limited, and they had been under stress since the 1970′s.

          The 90′s were more of a breather than anything else. And once we left the 90′s, the pain began spreading from the blue collar workers to the less skilled white collar workers, mostly those in lower management, HR, and generic office work.

  • Diomedes

    “Many liberal ideas have fallen flat over the decades. But one of the worst “reforms” of all was no-fault divorce….Time was when to get divorced, you actually needed a credible reason–marital infidelity, spousal abuse, violence, drugs, crime. Now it’s just a lifestyle change: You just don’t feel like living together, you just split. And the children be damned”

    May I ask a question?

    If this was a ‘liberal idea’, then might I be inclined to ask why the states with the highest percentage of single parents and divorces are all red states?

    As for social mobility, here’s my take: I think it has a lot less to do with divorce and a lot more to do with the massive wealth transfer that occurred starting in the Reagan years from the middle class to the uber wealthy. That, combined with the uber wealthy’s predilection towards using lobbyists to get their way, fostered an environment where the deck is now heavily stacked against those attempting to climb up in the world.

    • valkayec

      You’re absolutely correct. When I was growing up and entering the business workforce, during the 50s through 70s, upward social mobility was, if not easy, highly possible. A single income paid for home and hearth with enough left over to help kids get into college which every parent pushed their kids to attend. College educations, too, were affordable. For example, my older brother graduated from UC Berkeley without having 20 years of his income tied up in loans. He and his wife later went to UC Santa Barbara so he could obtain his PhD. Again, the costs were manageable as were mine when I went to college. Now, college educations can cost upwards of $100k, depending upon the school.

      Dad may have been a mechanic or a steelworker, but the kids could aspire to and obtain a career as a doctor or lawyer or even higher. Ambition knew no bounds.

      But as the “greed is good” mentality took over during the ’80s, costs grew and upwards mobility decreased. Suddenly, it took two incomes to meet the rising costs that one income did in previous decades. Children were left alone without encouragement to excel (“I’m too tired; go outside and play or sit down and watch TV. [Or] here’s $10 bucks, go to the movies or something.”) Work hours increased from 40 to 50 or 60 hours a week and salaries stagnated, making it even harder to keep up and even more difficult to invest in additional education to meet new workforce demands.

      At the same time, the “greed is good” mentality financialized the economy, sending more financial resources upward to large or financially well off investors. Company CEOs no longer came from the ranks of manufacturing or production but from financial officers. Budgets were squeezed to produce better and better quarterly results to satisfy Wall St and investment fund investors while internal company growth, innovation, and investment lagged, including employee investment. And health care costs exploded, taking ever larger shares of both company and employee incomes. GM is a prime example, but certainly not the only one.

      Just look at the most popular shows of the past two decades on TV. They’re all about instant celebrity and get rich quick. Not like the movies and TV shows of the 30s, 40s and 50s where labor was celebrated and kids grew up believing they could become President because there was a recognized ideal in society. The commonwealth worked for the good of the commons. That feeling amongst the commons no longer exists.

      There are plenty like Smarg who blame employees and all the others left behind, but they’ve been spoon fed propaganda for decades. We didn’t get into this mess just since Obama became President. It’s been a long, slow process in the making, of more than three decades of decisions that valued increased stock prices and the wealthy over labor (labor earned income). The nation and all of her people are now reaping the rewards of that “greed is good” mentality.

      We’re right back where we were in the Gilded Age, except now major corporations no longer have to play only on the domestic playing field; they have the entire world on which to play to extract exorbitant wealth, leaving domestic workers behind in an ever greater hunt for higher and higher quarterly profits.

      • Lord Sidious

        Spoken like a true Marxist.

        • valkayec

          Another bloody idiot mucking up the intellectual works! Are you like most of your class: inbred to such a high degree that you’re bereft of brains and brawn?

        • Banty

          “Spoken like a true Marxist”

          Spoken with zero rationale.

        • Redrabbit

          Yet every single word of it was completely true.

        • SteveT

          A marxist would advocate seizing everyone’s assets and having the state divide them equally.

          Pointing out there was recently much greater opportunity for the majority of American citizens is hardly the same.

      • Balsack

        The very nice thing about the Gilded Age.

        We had Twain!

  • Oldskool

    What should we expect really. The right has waged war on the poor and every lever of government for decades now. Unless the base of the Republican party wakes up, nothing will change anytime soon. The upside is that their base is old and not long for this world.

    • Saladdin

      +1. It began with Reagan’s dismantling of the new deal and has continued ever since. Whither the days of Ike, Lincoln, or even Ford?

      • Lord Sidious

        Saladdin, You have the name of a historic enemy of the west. Says alot about you.

        • Banty

          An ‘enemy of the west’ only because he was fighting an invader. Even as an enemy admired by the west for many qualities. Maybe you should learn a a little history.

          And you’re named for, on the other hand …..(!!?!)

        • Redrabbit

          On the other hand, Darth Sidious DID manipulate the government in to launching a more or less phony war so he could essentially suspend civil liberties and take over the Republic.

          Sounds like a guy any movement conservative could grow to love!

    • Lord Sidious

      Are you poor?

  • sdspringy

    Why does anyone take seriously what this fool says. Noah you’re an idiot.
    From your own study, do you bother to read the heading???

    “the report finds that a middle-class upbringing does not guarantee the same status over the course of a lifetime.”

    Important part here is “does not guarantee”. Understand the concept of “no guarantee”???


    “Marital status, education, test scores and drug use have a strong influence on whether a middle-class child loses economic ground as an adult.”

    What does that tell you, well it tells me that drug use is not beneficial to your economic well being.
    It tells me that POOR choices affects your financial well being.

    That is ground breaking information there, maybe something you should highlight in your title.


    I wonder if your not a drug using, drop out, philandering, idiot how your chances would be to excel in the American dream, probably pretty damn good. Look how far your came and your really a tool.

    • dennis

      While I agree with the simplicity of your argument, I find your personally insulting attack on the author unnecessary, and it detracts from your point.

      • sdspringy

        Probably, but you will get to that point after you have read this “author” as often as I have.

      • Banty

        It’s that half-right quality of that kind of argumentation.

        For upward mobility, one needs to not make poor choices, AND have some measure of resources and luck. A lot of successful people, especially lately, were ‘born on third base and think they hit a triple’.

        For some groups, a poor choice or two is limiting; for others, it’s catastrophic.

        A general contractor I’ve hired for many things has his ne’er-do well brother working with him. Someone with a drug history, who needs supervision, but with that input can get some tasks done. They’re white and suburban.

        Someone else, a ne-er do well with a drug history, is on the street. No contractor brother, no cousin with a hardware store who can hire them on for the lumber realted tasks. On the street.

        It’s not just one’s actions that determine downward mobility.

        On the other hand, of my friends who went to medical school, one had to drop out. Why? She was expected, whatever her aspirations and abilities, to take on care of a sick family member. She’s Puerto Rican. It’s that, or live with the disappointment and even enmity of her family forever. Others in similar situations – the ill person has and/or the family resources to obtain home care or assisted living, and even if not they would not think of asking a 20-something daughter in their family to drop out of medical school.

        It’s not just one’s actions that determine upward mobility.

  • Balsack

    With Noah. 2×2

    AGAIN, Noah insists on stating facts, and describing reality. Does it just not make us wish to puke if we are True NEW Republicans?

    For some strange reason, Noah, who spent some time in Japan, knows that ideology does not usually mirror reality!

    FACTS, SCIENCE, and REALITY are very difficult things to get a handle on. From a science philosophical point of view, reality is not easy to pin down.

    For example, your perception of a red light at some wavelength might be different from my perception at the same wavelength. And so your perception of reality might be far different from mine.

    But, still, all I can tell you. When the light turns from Green to RED, THEN you really need to pay far more attention to what’s up ahead!

    Because NATURE does not fuk around worrying about Man’s perceptions of Nature. Man still needs to pay far more attention to F=ma!

    I think our great writer F=ma + Noah just might understand this.
    American Fantasy Lovers::::: Good on you! But you will be fckd up unless you soon get REAL.

  • jakester

    I wonder how much those negative stats have to do with the 70+% illegitimacy rate and single parent households or many of those “middle class” blacks were mainly do the civil service AA type jobs? Jeez, outside of bars and storefront churches, the last time I went through the hood every small business was run by Asians of one sort or another.

  • Churl

    Does this mean that Frum and Chums expect that Mr. Rubio could run as vice presidential candidate on a non-Romney ticket?

    Trashings by FF are a good indicator of which Republicans might challenge Romney.

  • Balsack

    Americans always believe they are special.
    Americans love a winner.
    Americans believe they are the only ones on earth who are truly blessed.

    But this is total unadulterated crap.

    valkayec, speaking of upward mobility, America might not be the very best place to climb the ladder, these days. But not the worst. Still, come to Asia, if you wish to climb the ladder. There is still plenty of room at the top in Asia. Just bring money. Or, just be local. Or, just be a CPC member with great connections.

    BASICALLY, if you really wish for TRUE MOBILITY, then you could not ask for much more than Huang Guangyu. Yes. He went from almost nothing. To being one of the richest men in China. And then he progressed to being disappeared in one of China’s prisons. Just how much more mobile might one wish to be?

    In Red China, everything is always pretty mobile. What goes up. Usually comes back down fairly quickly. Red China has never been a great stickler for stability. And this is why. You should come to Red China to find great mobility. If this is what you truly seek.

  • Lonewolf

    Commerce Dep’t stats released a few days ago indicate that a typical American male, working 40 hours a week, is now earning less than 8¢ an hour more than he would have at in 1972! That means in 39 years, his annual wages have gone up a piddling $165. (Median earnings ’72 @ $47,550 – today @ $47,715)
    The American Dream is dead. Thanks, Retardigans. I hope all those Chinese and Mexican workers who have prospered due to a half century of your corporate tax breaks vote for you!

    • Balsack

      True what you said, White Fang, but also false. Some of us old canines recall what it was truly like in 1972. Most dogs back then were fairly happy with their dog food. Unlike today.

      You know, LoneWolf, I really think they are watering down our dog food without telling us. Because we just do not seem to have enough energy from the kibble to even have an ejaculation while having sex.

      So please, my canine friend, do not trust the numbers provided to you by the Commerce Gov Despots.