The United States is the land of opportunity, the place where pluck and perseverance pay off. Like Horatio Alger, anyone can rise from rags to riches. This is an ideal, of course, and as Howard Steven Friedman points out in The Measure of a Nation, there’s no such thing as a perfect meritocracy. We may be created equal, but we are not born into equal circumstances. Still, many would argue that the United States is Number 1 when it comes to opportunity. Is it? What do the facts show?
This question isn’t as easy to answer as the question about health we discussed yesterday. With health, life expectancy gives us a measure of performance. How should we measure opportunity? One way is by looking at outcomes, such as the distribution of income and wealth in the U.S. compared to other nations. Here are a few facts based on Friedman’s comparison of data from more than a dozen developed countries:
America has the highest level of income inequality. Rich Americans control a much bigger share of income than rich people do in other countries.
The same true for wealth—a person’s net financial assets, which includes real estate, stocks, bonds, cash, and other assets. The U.S. is the leader in wealth inequality.
The gap between rich and poor is growing faster in the U.S. than it is in other nations.
The rich have gotten richer but the middle class has not. Wealth has not trickled down to wage earners, and incomes at the low end of the scale have grown at a much slower rate here than elsewhere in the world.
But, you might object, this is how things work out in a meritocracy. Some win, some lose. Indeed, as we’ve discussed on OurValues.org before, equality of outcomes is not a core American value. Equality of opportunities is a core value. Unfortunately, that idea of opportunity is far from reality.
One way to measure opportunities is to look at the relationship between the incomes of one generation and the following generation. For example, if a father’s income predicts a son’s income, then there is little income mobility between generations. If a father’s income does not predict a son’s, then there is a lot of mobility—which is what we would expect in a land of opportunity. The news is, however, that the U.S. has the lowest mobility from generation to generation. The offspring of rich parents are very likely to be rich themselves. The offspring of poor parents will be poor, too. Moreover, the situation is getting worse. What mobility we have is declining over time.
This week, the PBS network will debut a gripping documentary about five years in the life of one family caught in New Orleans’ now infamous Lower Ninth Ward. Here’s a review of that upcoming film, the source of our photo (above) today. Carolyn Parker, the woman in this photo, embodies most of the good values we celebrate in the American spirit—nevertheless, her attempt to survive after Hurricane Katrina proves agonizingly tough in her impoverished neighborhood.
Friedman’s begins his chapter on equality with a quote from US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”
Do you agree with Brandeis’ statement?
Are you alarmed at our growing economic inequality?
What do you make of the declining mobility from generation to generation?
Please, leave a Comment below.
Originally published at www.OurValues.org, an experiment in civil dialogue about American values.