The Mobility Myth: Why Everyone Overestimates American Equality of Opportunity
When Americans express indifference about the problem of unequal incomes, it’s usually because they see the United States as a land of boundless opportunity. Sure, you’ll hear it said, our country has pretty big income disparities compared with Western Europe. And sure, those disparities have been widening in recent decades. But stark economic inequality is the price we pay for living in a dynamic economy with avenues to advancement that the class-bound Old World can only dream about. We may have less equality of economic outcomes, but we have a lot more equality of economic opportunity.
The problem is, this isn’t true. Most of Western Europe today is both more equal in incomes and more economically mobile than the United States. And it isn’t just Western Europe. Countries as varied as Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, and Pakistan all have higher degrees of income mobility than we do. A nation that prides itself on its lack of class rigidity has, in short, become significantly more economically rigid than many other developed countries. How did our perception of ourselves end up so far out of sync with reality?
IN THE 1830S, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that, in notable contrast to the “aristocratic nations” of Europe, the United States was a place where “new families are constantly springing up, others are constantly falling away, and all that remain change their condition.” Karl Marx sounded a similar note in 1865 when he observed that “the position of wages laborer is for a very large part of the American people but a probational state, which they are sure to leave within a longer or shorter term.” But it was two American writers who probably did the most to shape our country’s self-image as the land of unbounded opportunity. They were Horatio Alger, of whom you’ve probably heard, and James Truslow Adams, of whom you probably haven’t. When Alger and Adams were alive—and also, for that matter, when Tocqueville and Marx contributed their observations—American opportunity was a much closer match to their superlatives than it is now.