Ah, the good old American Dream. You know, that belief that in the Land of Opportunity, with enough work, effort and determination one can simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make something of their future. The image of the self-made man, who finds himself at the top after a long, hard upward battle.
It certainly existed a couple hundred years ago, but does it still exist today? According to a new study from the University of Wisconsin, not really. Well, to be fair, the chance is still there, it just doesn’t happen very often.
The report, “Pursuing the American Dram: Economic Mobility across Generations,” uses the most current data to measure mobility by family income and family wealth. And what does it show?
First of all, it seems that most people do better than their parents, but not all that much better. Despite the fact that 84 percent of Americans have higher family incomes than their parents had at the same age, nearly half of all people born in the bottom 20 percent stay there, while 70 percent born in the bottom half never get to the top half.
As for the extremes of the American Dream, those tried and true rags to riches stories, only 4 percent born in the bottom fifth ever make it to the top fifth. And in reverse, just 8 percent start at the top and fall to the bottom.
It’s hard to be poor after attending private schools and Harvard.
Actually, it’s hard to be poor after attending a four-year school in general. Despite the apparent lack of upward mobility, the study also found that a four-year degree is a solid foundation to fall back on. Only 10 percent born into the bottom rung who earn a college degree stay there, and having a degree makes a person more than three times more likely to rise from the bottom of the family income latter all the way to the top. Also, 39 percent of middle-class-born people without a college degree fall into the bottom, while just 22 percent with a degree suffer a similar fate.
In short, the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor, on average in this country, which is probably how it is everywhere else as well. But if you go to school, chances are that you won’t fall flat on your face.