Thursday, August 18, 2005

Stark reality of the American dream

Where is our FDR today?

In what should be a huge story in the United States, which has always prided itself on high levels of social mobility (the ability of poor to become well-off), a wide-ranging comparision of countries now puts the US last in the developing world that category. Even more class-based than stodgy old England

Pro-Amerian journo Humphrey Hawksley of the BBC asks whether that once universal idea of the American dream still exists. Entire article.

I had come to Seattle because of a recent survey by the Centre for Economic Performance in London, on how easy or difficult it was to get rich in different parts of the world - or if not rich, at least move out of poverty.

"If you are born into poverty in the US," said one of its authors, "you are actually more likely to remain in poverty than in other countries in Europe, the Nordic countries, even Canada, which you would think would not be that different."

The study, together with general anti-American sentiment which has become more prevalent since the Iraq war, raised for me a question about the American dream - the idea that the United States is a place where anything is possible.

Or as the Economist has put it lately:

Income inequality is growing to levels not seen since the Gilded Age, around the 1880s. But social mobility is not increasing at anything like the same pace.

Between 1979 and 2000 the real income of households in the lowest fifth (the bottom 20% of earners) grew by 6.4%, while that of households in the top fifth grew by 70%. The family income of the top 1% grew by 184%.

The Economist further noted that the income gap between the college-educated and non-college-educated Americans more than doubled -- from 31 percent to 66 percent -- between 1979 and 1997, but rapidly escalating tuition costs threaten to limit university access to the socially elite. Tuition at Penn State -- Pennsylvania's "state" university -- for example, will top $11,000 a year beginning this fall.

Social class once mattered little in an upwardly mobile America.

That America, the evidence suggests, is history.



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