How Attainable Is the American Dream, Really?


American DreamAmerica prides itself on being a country where economic mobility is possible and everyone has an equal opportunity for success—what we define as the American Dream. But is it really true that anyone can attain the Dream?

According to research by Pew Charitable Trusts, 84% of people out-earn their parents (even after adjusting for inflation). That’s great!

Right? Maybe.

The poorest Americans are wealthier than they used to be, but it’s increasingly difficult to transcend the economic class you were born into–43% of people born into the lowest economic class are stuck there, and 40% of those born into the very highest class hold onto their lofty positions.

Meanwhile, in a comparable country like Denmark, under 30% of those born into the lowest class end up stuck there as adults. It’s not just Denmark; The New York Times notes there’s less class mobility in the U.S. than in Canada or even Britain, a country with a reputation for class constraints.

So, although we’re making more than our parents in absolute dollar amounts, a boost in income may not be enough to bump us to the next rung on the ladder because the gap between the richest and the poorest is wider than ever. Economists think the U.S. poverty rate will soon rise to 15.7%, the highest since 1965, and an earlier study by the Pew Research Center found that two-thirds of Americans think the class divide is the biggest concern in our country today, even bigger than racial strain or immigration.

As you can see in the chart from Pew’s report, below, a true rags-to-riches experience is hard to come by. Each bar in the chart refers to one quintile, or a fifth of all people, born in each social class. So, the bar all the way to the left represents people born into the lowest fifth, and the colored divisions going upward represent the class they ended up in as adults. As you can see, only 4% of people born into the bottom quintile managed to make it all the way to the top as adults.

Class Stickiness

How to Improve Your Class Mobility

Despite the current lack of mobility in the U.S., one thing has been shown to help people across all economic classes raise themselves up: a college education. Though the nation’s massive student loan debt has led people to debate whether a college education is actually worth it, education has been shown to significantly improve economic class at all levels.

For those who grew up low on the ladder: A college education makes a person over three times more likely to rise from the bottom of the family income ladder all the way to the top. 90% of people with a college degree move up from the bottom fifth of the ladder.

For those who grew up higher on the ladder: A degree makes people raised in a middle or higher economic group significantly less likely to lose ground. In other words, growing up in an upper middle class household helps your odds of staying relatively wealthy as an adult, and having a college degree cements that.

Is College a Cure-All?

Although a college education is, in some ways, a great equalizer, the road to that education is far from equal. Obviously, wealthier families will better be able to help their kids pay for college, and educated parents are more likely to pressure their kids to get a higher education. But the problem is that the achievement gap between rich kids and poor kids is growing ever wider.

In one study, the achievement gap–the difference in standardized testing scores–between rich and poor kids grew about 40% since the 1960s.

The New York Times article speculates that the recession may have intensified this gap, not least because, as one quoted University of Pennsylvania professor puts it, “The pattern of privileged families today is intensive cultivation.” In other words, by the time they hit high school, high-income kids have spent about 400 more hours in “literacy activities,” like extracurricular activities or enrichment camps, than poor children. Meanwhile, lower income families are likelier to be from single-income homes, in which parents simply don’t have the time or means to keep their kids constantly stimulated.

Maybe that’s why increasing numbers of high-income kids are going to college nowadays, whereas lower-income kids’ college numbers have barely budged. One study found that high-income kids finishing college increased from about 33% to over 50% from the early ’80s to the early ’00s. Meanwhile, the number among low-income students only increased from 5% to 9%.

The bottom line? Income inequality:

  • has been growing vastly in the U.S.
  • is one of the biggest social issues today
  • can be mitigated by going to college
  • has bled into many parts of society, with social repercussions including the ability get an education and advance from one rung to the next.
What do you think of this? Is income inequality in the U.S. at the front of your mind?
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  • Guest

    This information about college education being the greatest way for those in lower quintiles to move up is what motivated me to become a teacher in the inner-city, thus dropping me out of the quintile into which I was born and making my earning potential far below that of my parents.  Oh the irony. 

  • Guest

    I think if you want anything bad enough you will achieve it.  Both my husband and I come from solidly lower middle class backgrounds.  You wouldn’t know it to look at us, but we enjoy being completely debt free (including the house) and have a seven figure net worth.  We are in our mid-forties.  We’ve both worked since before high school. We were both the first child in our family to graduate from college (even though hubs was 40 when he finally received his bachelor’s degree).  Neither of our families were in a position to provide anything more than moral support along our journey. Hard work, a willingness to do whatever it takes and our connections with others opened doors to opportunities.  We were careful stewards of the money that flowed in to our lives – spending wisely, saving and giving back to the local community.  I don’t have to work, but I do as a teacher at a Title I school.  

    • Elissa Backas

      Yes, hard is very important, but I know plenty of people who worked all through HS and college, have good jobs, but are still paying off student loans. Tuition is much higher than it was and continues to increase every year. I feel like I was at an incredible advantage for having my parents pay 100% of my costs so I had time to concentrate on studying and finding a good job.

      • joeaverage21

        Yes and no. Some of my friends who graduated with alot of debt spent alot of money unnecessarily. They did not live like a poor college student, they ate well, had nice things, and so forth.

        I think more people could graduate with less debt if they wanted to.

    • joeaverage21

      And learning to network a little, have an intelligent conversation, dress neatly but not necessarily expensively, to be good company (not awkward), informed on the topics of the day, etc.

      So many people I’ve met over the years just don’t come off as friendly or well put together. They don’t have to wear or drive the best, just be neat and tidy. Was part of an hiring committee a few years ago and it was amazing how many people did not bother to arrive on time, put their best foot forward, proof-read their application or resume apparently, or come off as friendly and reasonably mannered.

      I think this works against some folks. Never had a good example to emulate.

  • Fractalshift

    I question the logic of your comment, rag to riches stories are hard to come by….They are supposed to be. I find it ironic that “the achievement gap–the difference in standardized testing scores–between rich and poor kids grew about 40% since the 1960s.” when the 60′s were to Genesis of the fight  for racial equality  in America. Perhaps we failed at that? There is a famous quote “You can’t solve a problem using the same thinking that created it”-Einstein.  Perhaps the answer isn’t what we think it is more schools , more money spent on teachers and classrooms etc…but more social support for families at lower economic levels. I have read studies that a stable family life while growing up is a very strong predictor of achievement. 

    • joeaverage21


      Call me old fashioned but I think kids raised in a stable, loving family with two committed parents – in a neighborhood surrounded by like-minded folks who also value stability and long term commitment to family life goes a long way to raising well adjusted, goal oriented kids. I’m not even talking about religious, gay/straight or ethnic issues here. Stability. Long term commitment. Stable income. Thoughtful, long term plans. Regularity of schedules. Shared chores and responsibilities. Cooperation. Living good examples by the adults of these families. Loving multi-generational families living life together and sharing fun, events and meals together.

      Parents seem to be surprised that their kids end up having problems with the very same things they the parents have problems with – relationship issues (endless drama), alcohol/drugs/porn, a lack of appreciation of education (meanwhile Mom and Dad bad mouth all the teachers), debt, etc.

    • Bridget47

      Actually it may be a meaningless statistic. Because what standardized test are they talking about?

      If they’re talking about SATs or ACT, then poor kids aren’t taking those tests in the 1960s. They’re not planning on going to college, they’re planning to get their HS degree and go to work. The only poor kids planning to go to college are the very top of their class.

      You might also consider that in the 1960s, black kids aren’t taking those exams in a lot of school systems under any circumstances because they’re being pushed into nonacademic high schools.