The American Dream Is Another Myth

By Joel Hirschhorn, Published Nov 23, 2007

Most Americans have succumbed to tradition and advertising and stuffed their bellies with unhealthy food and stuffed their shopping carts with unnecessary stuff. Now, here are some tough facts about the sad state of the American economy from the late 1960s to the early 2000s, as revealed recently by the Economic Mobility Project.

Anyone who still gives thanks for the classic American dream of rising from poverty to riches is not facing reality. Research has documented that only 6 percent of children born to parents with family income in the bottom fifth of the income spectrum move to the top fifth. The rags to riches story is garbage. Meanwhile, an amazing 42 percent of children born into that lowest fraction remain stuck in that lowly economic class, not even making into middle class status. At the other end, four out of 10 children born to rich parents stay rich.

Looking more generally at economic mobility this is reality: 34 percent of Americans make more than their parents’ family income and move up at least one rung on the economic ladder. But more experience downward mobility, with 38 percent moving down the economic ladder.

What about black Americans?

Only 31 percent of black children born to middle-income parents make more than their parents‟ family income, compared to 68 percent of white children. Almost half (45 percent) of black children whose parents were solidly middle income end up falling to the bottom of the income distribution, compared to only 16 percent of white children.

For every parental income group, white children are more likely to move ahead of their parents’ economic rank while black children are more likely to fall behind.

What about women versus men?

47 percent of daughters born to parents on the bottom rung stay on the bottom rung, compared to 35 percent of sons.

And here is the really bad news for American men: In contrast to data on family income, the personal income of men has been almost perfectly flat for the past three decades. The better incomes of working women have caused apparent increases in family or household incomes.

Inflation-adjusted median income for men ages 30-39 actually fell by 12 percent between 1974 and 2004, from $40,000 a year to about $35,000 a year in constant dollars.

When it comes to America’s democracy and economy, keep dreaming.

[Joel S. Hirschhorn can be reached through]


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