America's story, our national mythology, is built on the idea of being an opportunity society. From the tales of Horatio Alger to the real lives of Henry Ford and Mark Zuckerberg, we have defined our country as a place where everyone, if he or she works hard enough, can get ahead. As Alexis de Tocqueville argued more than 150 years ago, it's this dream that enables Americans to tolerate much social inequality--this coming from a French aristocrat--in exchange for what we perceive as great dynamism and opportunity in our society. Modern surveys confirm what Tocqueville sensed back then: Americans care much more about being able to move up the socioeconomic ladder than where we stand on it. We may be poor today, but as long as there's a chance that we can be rich tomorrow, things are O.K.
But does America still work like that? The suspicion that the answer is no inspires not only the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests that have spread across the nation but also a movement as seemingly divergent as the Tea Party. While OWS may focus its anger on rapacious bankers and the Tea Party on spendthrift politicians, both would probably agree that there's a cabal of entitled elites on Wall Street and in Washington who have somehow loaded the dice and made it impossible for average people to get ahead. The American Dream, like the rest of our economy, has become bifurcated.
Certainly the numbers support the idea that for most people, it's harder to get ahead than it's ever been in the postwar era. Inequality in the U.S., always high compared with that in other developed countries, is rising. The 1% decried by OWS takes home 21% of the country's income and accounts for 35% of its wealth. Wages, which have stagnated in real terms since the 1970s, have been falling for much of the past year, in part because of pervasively high unemployment. For the first time in 20 years, the percentage of the population employed in the U.S. is lower than in the U.K., Germany and the Netherlands. "We like to think of America as the workingest nation on earth. But that's no longer the case," says Ron Haskins, a co-director, along with Isabel Sawhill, of the Brookings Institution's Center on Children and Families.
Nor are we the world's greatest opportunity society. The Pew Charitable Trusts' Economic Mobility Project has found that if you were born in 1970 in the bottom one-fifth of the socioeconomic spectrum in the U.S., you had only about a 17% chance of making it into the upper two-fifths. That's not good by international standards. A spate of new reports from groups such as Brookings, Pew and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show that it's easier to climb the socioeconomic ladder in many parts of Europe than it is in the U.S. It's hard to imagine a bigger hit to the American Dream than that: you'd have an easier time getting a leg up in many parts of sclerotic, debt-ridden, class-riven old Europe than you would in the U.S.A. "The simple truth," says Sawhill, "is that we have a belief system about ourselves that no longer aligns with the facts."