Getting stuck on America's economic ladder

One of the hidebound myths in our culture is the Horatio Alger fantasy: you might be born poor, Bucko, but America's the land of upward mobility – anyone with grit and gumption can scramble from the very bottom of the economic ladder all the way to the top.

One of the hidebound myths in our culture is the Horatio Alger fantasy: you might be born poor, Bucko, but America’s the land of upward mobility – anyone with grit and gumption can scramble from the very bottom of the economic ladder all the way to the top.

At last, though, this musty myth is being dispelled as everyone from academics to Wall Street protesters are proving that it simply isn’t true. Even prominent politicos are catching on – as one said last fall, “[Movement] up into the middle income is actually greater… in Europe than it is in America.” That’s no liberal talking, it’s Rick Santorum! The same guy who now says “There are no classes in America” was at least visiting reality just a few months ago.

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While GOP leaders still try to dismiss the issue of income inequality, the mobility issue goes to the very core of America’s identity – it’s too big to deny or ignore. John Bridgeland , a former Bush aide who now heads a policy group called Opportunity Nation, says bluntly that Republicans “will feel a need to talk about a lack of mobility – a lack of access to the American Dream.”

Many recent studies confirm that our country has developed a class “stickiness” that is alarmingly dangerous to our social unity. A Pew research report finds that about 62 percent of Americans born on the top rungs of the economic ladder stay there as adults, and 65 percent born on the bottom rungs remain stuck there for life. In a ranking of nine affluent countries, Canada was tops in upward mobility and the U.S. was last.

America won’t offer a true opportunity for upward mobility unless we restore a unity of purpose among all of our people – and we can’t achieve that as long as top corporate and governmental leaders deliberately widen the chasm separating the rich from the rest of us.

“Harder for Americans to Rise From Economy’s Lower Rungs,” The New York Times, January 5, 2012.

“Battling the bastards is about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on.”

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