There is definitely something to be said for the American Dream, but is it truly possible to rise above where you came from and live and fulfill your dreams completely? Or are you destined to remain in the social class in which you were born into, the social class of your parents? These are big questions, and ones that are not easy to answer.
A recent study shows that it might be more difficult, actually, to move up in social class in the United States, as compared with many other nations, including Japan, Germany, Australia and the Scandinavian countries. A study published by economists at the University of Ottawa described the likelihood of social mobility for those living in many other countries around the world. As it turns out, it is only more difficult in China, India, Italy, the UK and most South American countries.
The study considered what they described as “intergenerational elasticity” to evaluate certain economic changes that were found between one generation and the next, and established correlations between what you would be expected to make today, as compared with what your parents made a generation ago. The researchers concluded that there are many factors that affect this elasticity, but there are certain similarities that they did identify as relevant, and they noted that Americans who are born into the lower socioeconomic classes tend to remain there.
Here are some of the factors that they identified as important:
- Level of present inequality: The countries that currently have higher levels of inequality are the ones in which it is more likely that this generation will remain in the same social class as their parents. This tends to happen because there are fewer wealthier families, and it is the wealthy families who can afford the extras—including better schools, tutors, activities, etc., that will help a child to excel. Education is thought to be the most important factor for change in socioeconomic status from one generation to the next—families that can afford the best educations are going to see the greatest social mobility in an upward direction from generation to generation. And, education matters more than ever when it comes to getting a great job—which, in turn, can lead to economic mobility.
- Amount of family stability: Family stability is another factor that was identified as critical for successful upward economic mobility. As the US has a high rate of divorce, there are more single parent homes. There is also a higher rate of teen pregnancy. While single parents and teenage mothers do not guarantee poor economic outcomes, they certainly are at a higher risk for limited economic mobility.
- Social and governmental policies: Those countries that place a high value on education and use greater amounts of the tax dollars collected for educational and healthcare systems will tend to have greater social and economic mobility rates. This happens because the poor benefit from the success of the rich, closing the gap between the two extremes. Countries that redistribute wealth to where it is needed most have the highest rates of economic mobility of those included in the survey.
Ultimately, it is important to realize that economic mobility is not a guarantee, and that living “the American Dream” may not be as easy as once thought. Education, family stability and adequate allocation of public resources are going to help with economic mobility and allow for change in social status. A person’s social class will almost always continue to be somewhat related to their upbringing, but change can happen with certain factors in place.