Commentary: American Dream Untouchable for Most

A new study says the fantasy of moving out of the lower economic levels into the upper echelons is almost impossible for most people.

Posted: 07/10/2012 04:05 PM EDT
American Dream remains untouchable for many.

As with many things nowadays, there’s good news and bad news about a new study from the nonprofit Economic Mobility Project: The good news is that the vast majority of Americans now make more money than their parents did before them, providing them with more capital than ever to try to make it in the world.


The bad news? Despite the fact they’re making more money, Americans are also less likely to advance into different economic classes than their parents. Some people are even falling backwards, especially Black people.


A report from Annie Gowen at the Washington Post clarifies things: 


While 84 percent of Americans earn more than their parents, about a third moved up between income classes in the past four decades, according to the study … Sixteen percent of all families surveyed dropped from the income levels of their parents, and Blacks were more likely to be downwardly mobile than whites. 


"While most Americans have more income earnings or wealth than their parents, it may not be enough to move them to a higher rung of the economic ladder," said Diana Elliott, the project's research manager.


According to the study, 43 percent of people raised in the bottom income level will stay there into adulthood. And if getting out of the lower economic classes is hard, getting out of the lower economic classes and entering the highest economic class is practically impossible. Americans now have a 4 percent chance of going from the very bottom income bracket to the very top, according to the study.


While all Americans have a hard time creating economic mobility, things become particularly difficult for both Black people and the uneducated. According to the Post, “African-Americans and those without a college degree have the most difficulty climbing the rungs.”


That’s partially because African-Americans are likelier than whites to earn less than their parents did. Only 23 percent of Black people end up earning more wealth than their parents, while a full 56 percent of whites do the same. And with the Black middle class losing more and more of its members all the time in this economy, that disparity is likely to grow.


There’s a lot to parse in the full report, but what’s at the heart of this new data is that the so-called American Dream — the rags-to-riches story young children of little means fantasize about — is out of reach of most Americans.


Fairy tales and politicians can talk about the American Cinderella story all they want, but the numbers don’t lie: For most Americans, the American Dream will always be only a dream.


The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.


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