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The American Dream – Dispelling the Myth of Social Immobility

Landing a job after college is never far from our mind. We worked hard and were fortunate enough to get here. Now, with an eye to the future, we join clubs, secure internships, and take difficult classes, all with the hope of learning something that interests us but also makes us attractive to employers. Frankly, for most of us, looks just won’t cut it. We put tremendous effort in because we expect – or, at the very least, hope – it will pay off. In the back of our mind, we still believe hard work translates to success. Then why do we often hear people say the American Dream is dead? What’s the point of crying yourself to sleep during finals week if, at the end of it all, you’re stuck precisely where you started? Don’t worry, I’m here to tell you those tears were worth it. Hard work is still worth it. While some popular polemics might say the American Dream is a thing of the past, they’re wrong. Dead wrong. 

Make no mistake, poverty remains a serious issue and a pressing concern for a lot of Americans. While poverty has always existed, America was long thought of as a land of opportunity where anyone from anywhere could achieve anything. Now, to many, the American Dream has slipped away. Some fear economic mobility is only accessible to the privileged and connected. Consequently, many have insisted that economic status is dependent on birth place. Put simply, if you’re born rich, you’ll stay rich. If you’re born poor, you’ll stay poor. But is that really true? If so, is there any way to escape it?

According to a study conducted by Mark Rank and Thomas Hirschl of Cornell, Americans continue to experience high levels of social mobility. They studied a group of American adults aged 25-60 over a 44-year period and found remarkable results:

“It turns out that 12% of the population will find themselves in the top 1% of the income distribution for at least one year. What’s more, 39% of Americans will spend a year in the top 5% of the income distribution, 56% will find themselves in the top 10%, and a whopping 73% will spend a year in the top 20% of the income distribution.“

This disputes the notion of a rigid American class structure. Almost three fourths of all Americans will climb to the top 20% at some point in their lives. Moreover, according to researcher Scott Winship, 

“…roughly three in four adults — and the overwhelming majority of poor children — live better off than their parents after taking the rising cost of living into account.”

These results show the American Dream is far from dead. America remains a land of immense opportunity with a rather fluid class structure. With that said, Rank is quick to point out America isn’t perfect:

“This is just as true at the bottom of the income distribution scale, where 54 percent of Americans will experience poverty or near poverty at least once between the ages of 25 and 60.”

Despite the persistence of the American Dream, many continue to experience poverty. While about 75 percent of children will be better off than their parents, what about the other 25 percent? And while our class structure may be fluid, how can we ensure the American Dream remains accessible to all Americans, not just the privileged? For those who are not financially privileged, it may feel as if fighting poverty is a fleeting battle. Yet, in the midst of that powerlessness, the “Success Sequence” offers a glimmer of hope. Developed by some researchers at the Brookings Institution, it consists of three steps to achieving success:

  1. Finish high school.
  2. Get a job (Any job).
  3. Get married before having children.

According to their research, Americans who follow these three steps have a 98% chance of avoiding poverty while around 75% will end up in the middle class.  Moreover, another study showed that 97% of millennials who followed the sequence were not poor, while about 86% made it to the middle class. In other words, as college students, we are already a third of the way to success (do I sound hopeful yet?). 

Still, some critics of the Success Sequence point out African-Americans who follow these rules are more likely to end up in poverty than whites, suggesting it is not solely a result of individual actions. Personal circumstances certainly play a significant role. However, so do personal decisions. In the same study, only 39% of racial minorities who had children out of wedlock were in the middle class or better as compared to 76% who were married first. Furthermore, for Americans who grew up in low-income households, only 9% of those who followed the steps ended up in poverty, compared to 58% of those who failed all three steps.  Simply put, your decisions can dramatically change the course of your life, regardless of the circumstances you were born into.

To be clear, I do not intend to denigrate those who fail to complete these steps; nor do I wish to underestimate the challenges for many in doing so. I’m well aware of the privileges I have been afforded in my life and how those have benefitted me. I simply aim to reinforce the evidence, despite the popular narrative, that demonstrates you can significantly improve your odds of success by choosing to pursue it. While it is certainly true other factors play a significant role in determining whether or not someone ends up in poverty, we still have a lot of control over our own destiny. In other words, your hard work means something; your sacrifices matter. So, keep your head up and dig deeper into your pursuits; because, with the right ethic and proven discipline, you can and will achieve anything. 

By: Alexander Hemerling

Class of 2021

Political Science

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