An essential part of the American ethos is having the next generation prosper more than its predecessor. But for many Americans, especially those in the lower rungs of the economy, the future may hold a dimmer prospect.
The Economic Mobility Project, a product of The Pew Charitable Trusts, warns that growing income inequality in America threatens the age-old dream of each generation climbing the economic ladder.
It already is relatively uncommon in America to move from the lower class to the middle class, according to Pew researchers, let alone to the upper class. While two-thirds of Americans earn more than their parents after adjusting for inflation, the gain is fairly small and reflects general economic growth in the country more than a leapfrog to a bigger pond.
Erin Currier, director of the Economic Mobility Project, told NPR that data doesn't support the widely accepted notion that America is the world's land of opportunity. "This notion that we have about ourselves, as America being somehow exceptional in terms of our opportunity, is not accurate," Currier says. "The data show that the United States actually has less relative mobility than Western European and Canada."
Critics counter that data can be twisted to make a point. But it is hard to overlook the growing evidence that low-income people are slipping further behind as the rungs on the economic ladder have larger gaps. This isn't just liberal frothing; conservative policy thinkers agree. "I think the dream is alive and well generally for people who start in the middle class and the upper income levels," Stuart Butler, director of the Heritage Foundation's Center for Policy Innovation, told NPR. "I think it has eroded significantly for people at the lower end of the income level. We need to absolutely deal with that."
Opportunity isn't equal across the country either. The Pew Center on the States released a new report this month that suggests the best opportunities for upward economic mobility exist in Maryland, New Jersey and New York. Next comes Connecticut, Maine, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Utah.
The states with the worst record of upward mobility are Louisiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina, followed by Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas. Oregon, Washington and California all rank at about the national average.
David Brooks of The New York Times offered an interesting election-year history lesson in his column this week by noting that America prospered through the 19th century through encouraging economic dynamism. Building on the views of Alexander Hamilton, Brooks said a strong government role was universally accepted to build infrastructure, advance education and invest in research facilities.
That form of nationalism has withered in America, Brooks claims, as regulations have been imposed to protect workers and consumers, short-term job creation has overwhelmed long-term thinking and government financial support has shielded people from the "vicissitudes of capitalism."
Brooks says the question to ask in the current presidential and congressional elections isn't whether government is good or evil, big or small, but what it can do to avoid a nation sliding toward economic stagnation. The data shows that for most Americans, their economic fortunes are already stuck in the mud.