The Hard Truth About Economic Mobility

The American Dream makes us think we’re all going to get ahead if we work hard. But do we confuse what’s possible with what’s probable?

The Hard Truth About Economic Mobility
Images: Flickr user TheCoolQuest. Pew Charitable Trusts

As part of our research project looking at the American Dream, the polling firm, Harris, conducted a national survey. Among the questions, we asked Americans to tell us, which of two 15-year-old children would be more likely to achieve the American Dream: One had a strong family but lacked ambition, while the other had a strong work ethic but had an abusive family.


Seventy percent of Americans believe that the child in the abusive family is more likely to achieve the American Dream.

We like to think that in this country, no matter how bad things are, with hard work we can overcome anything. But is this wonderful ideal potentially a limiting belief? Do we conflate the possible with the probable when we think that a child from an abusive family has a better chance at success than a child from a strong family if only he works harder?

We often hear impressive stories of people who have overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges to escape bad neighborhoods or failing schools or damaged families. We hold them up as shining examples of what makes America great.

At the same time, we know the numbers tell us that most people don’t escape bad neighborhoods or failing schools or damaged families and that, while social mobility is at the heart of the American Dream, it is in decline and we now rank below most other developed countries in class mobility.


A research brief issued by the Pew Charitable Trusts, as part of their on-going Economic Mobility project, reports:

One of the hallmarks of the American Dream is equal opportunity: the belief that anyone who works hard and plays by the rules can achieve economic success. Polling by The Pew Charitable Trusts finds that 40 percent of Americans consider it common for a person in the United States to start poor, work hard, and become rich. But that rags-to-riches story is more prevalent in Hollywood than in reality. In fact, 43 percent of Americans raised at the bottom of the income ladder remain stuck there as adults, and 70 percent never even make it to the middle.

Their research also shows that if you’re born near the top, you’re more likely to stay at the top.



Actually, no. Similar research from Pew shows that there is actually less economic mobility in the U.S. than in most developed countries, including those with a deep history of strict class division.


While the short-term story of mobility suggests less movement than we’d like, the longer view shows that eventually we all curve back to the mean. Sounds promising, right? Sort of, if you’re really, really patient.

Gregory Clark, author of The Son Also Rises: The Story of Surnames and Social Mobility, shows that eventually high-status families will fall and low-status families will rise–both heading towards the average, in what’s referred to, statistically, as regression toward the mean.

The problem? While most of us think this mobility is something that occurs frequently within one’s lifetime or at most within one or two generations, in actuality, it normally takes 10 to 15 generations (or 300 to 450 years). This is much longer than social scientists have estimated in the past, and something that runs counter to everything we believe about moving up in America.

It seems like we can do better as a nation than telling people that while they won’t make it, their great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, grandchildren will.