The American Dream is Still Achievable–But Far from Easy

One of my mutuals on social media takes special glee in puncturing strongly-held beliefs. His latest target: the belief in America’s upward mobility relative to other countries:

A social media mutual shooting down an assertion regarding upward mobility in the U.S.

With the full awareness that some people will oppose what you say regardless, I’ll share information I’ve come across before in previous iterations of this same debate.

Key Statistics

Per this article from the World Economic Forum, the top 10 countries in their Global Social Mobility Index (as of 2020) are as follows:

  1. Denmark
  2. Norway
  3. Finland
  4. Sweden
  5. Iceland
  6. Netherlands
  7. Switzerland
  8. Austria
  9. Belgium
  10. Luxembourg

Canada, Japan, and Australia rank 14th, 15th, and 16th per the same index, with Britain ranking 21st and the U.S. a disappointing 27th. The full report weighs in at a stout 218 pages. While I won’t be doing a “I read this so you don’t have to” in this post, I will zoom into a couple of areas that highlight the challenges well.

One of the more interesting questions posed recently was how long it takes to get from the bottom economically to the middle class in reference to an NPR piece from 2014 indicating that economic mobility in the U.S. was worse than that of other wealthy countries.

As it turns out, part of the answer to Mr. Wilson’s question is in the following figure from page 10 of the same report.

Per the figure, a family in the US that started at the bottom of the income distribution could approach the mean income level in 5 generations–slower than in most of the countries ranked ahead of the U.S. in socioeconomic mobility, and on par with countries with global social mobility index scores similar to or slightly lower than the U.S.

Global Social Mobility Index Framework and Thoughts on Its Pillars

Figure 5 from page 14 of the World Economic Forum's Global Social Mobility Report from 2020.  It shows a boxes and arrows diagram for a virtuous cycle of more social mobility and a vicious cycle of less social mobility connected to 10 pillars comprising the Global Social Mobility Index Framework

The diagram above does a nice job of depicting what makes up their social mobility index. The 10 pillars of the index provide some clues as to why the U.S. might rank where it does when you think of local and national policy decisions. The Health pillar reminds me of the debates around the Affordable Care Act, successful attempts to undermine it in key respects, and continuing efforts to repeal it entirely through the federal judiciary. Due only in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, life expectancy in the U.S. has been trending downward. The U.S. also has maternal mortality rates far higher than most peer countries in the OECD (and non-OECD countries like Romania and Croatia). Maternal mortality rates seem primed to worsen due to the impacts of the Dobb’s decision on access to abortion, since states where abortion access is most restricted already have worse rates of maternal mortality than states where the procedure isn’t banned. Infant mortality rates are also higher than that of most of our peer countries in the OECD as well.

The Efficient and Inclusive Institutions pillar includes the courts and public services (the robustness of which vary widely depending on which state in the country you’re talking about). When it comes to the education and learning pillars, the mobility framework focuses much more on very early childhood education, vocational training, and other primary and secondary education factors. When I think of education, I think of how much more constrained it has become at the post-secondary level over the past 20 years due to significant increases in tuition. During the same time multiple states (including my home state of Maryland) drastically reduced the level of subsidies that had made in-state tuition a bargain and a no-brainer for students who were bright and ambitious but lacked the funds for truly elite education.

Technology Access as a pillar of social mobility is near and dear to my heart, given my career and past experiences from childhood and adulthood with dial-up internet at home. I seriously doubt I could have built the middle-class lifestyle I enjoy (and that I have provided to my wife and children over the past dozen years) without the education access, quality, equity (and affordability) and technology access I’ve been given going back decades. Access to high speed internet (at home, school, and/or public libraries), affordability of home and/or school access, accessibility in rural areas, monopolies on broadband provision, and electricity availability in rural areas have probably combined to make this access very unevenly distributed across the country. The shorthand for this in numerous news articles and other reports is “the digital divide”. There appears to be a growing body of scholarship around inequality in remote learning quality during COVID-19 subsequent to this social mobility report that should shed more light regarding the impacts of insufficient technology access internationally.

Pillars 6-8 cover work opportunities, fair wages, and working conditions. The Working Conditions pillar in particular uses the following benchmarks “the level of workers’ rights, collective bargaining coverage, meritocracy at work, labour-employer, cooperation, as well as the percentage of workers working longer than 48 hours per week” (page 17 of the full report). Here in the U.S. we have right-to-work states, a very low federal minimum wage, and unions which had been steadily eroded in strength up until very recently. All those factors before even talking about the ways in which certain employers have used illegal/undocumented workers–including migrant children, and the downward pressure undocumented labor puts on wages.

Last but not least, the pillars touching on the relative strength social safety net in each country measured. Compared to other wealthy nations, our social safety net is weak. How we handle unemployment (and unemployment benefits), job transitions, etc are just a few areas of consideration. One area where this is the most obvious might be maternity leave and paternity leave. An ex-pat friend of mine who lives and works in Berlin described a much more generous and family-centric system when it came to the experience of his wife having their son there than my own experience with my wife having twins here in the U.S.

Why Do So Many Immigrants Still Come Here?

This is one question usually posed in response to the sort of data and statistics I’ve shared earlier. But the same data statistics also answer this question. If you look toward the bottom of the global social mobility index rankings, here are some of the countries we find there:

  • Honduras (73rd out of 82)
  • Guatemala (75th out of 82)
  • India (76th out of 82)
  • Senegal (80th out of 82)
  • Cameroon (81st out of 82)
  • Côte d’Ivoire (82nd out of 82)

Further from the bottom but still in the second half of the index are countries like China (45th), Vietnam (50th), Thailand (55th), Mexico (58th), Brazil (60th), Philippines (61st), El Salvador (68th), and Ghana (70th). Even at 27th, the United States still offers far more social mobility to ambitious immigrants from these countries. The United States is also the third-largest country by population on Earth, behind only China and India. The ethnic diversity of the United States might also be attractive to immigrants because it increases their likelihood of finding community in an otherwise-new place. While it was a much earlier era for my parents and their family and friends coming here from the Caribbean in the 1960s, they built new community here and had more educational and economic opportunities here than they had at home in places like Jamaica, Guyana, and Trinidad.

Whether the United States remains the destination of choice for most immigrants is an open question. Much depends on the results of the 2024 presidential election. Even if the nominees are as expected (Trump for the GOP and Biden for the Democrats) and Biden manages to win re-election, Biden has retained certain Trump-era policies around immigration in his first term. A second Trump term would certainly bring an even harsher version of the immigration regime initial championed by Jeff Sessions as attorney general and by Stephen Miller, and include attacks on birthright citizenship despite it being part of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

What’s the Bottom Line on the American Dream?

There is no shortage of anecdotes from people coming to the U.S. and achieving great success. My parents and many of their friends achieved much greater success for themselves and their children here than they would have had in their own country. That success was by no means easy. Both of my parents earned all of their degrees (undergraduate and masters’) in night school. My sister and I were latchkey kids as a result. Success anecdotes aren’t the only data points though. The results of emigrating from one’s country of origin do not fall neatly into a binary of “success” or “failure”. For every story like that of my parents, there are probably others of people who have achieved less than my parents and would still count coming to America as a success. There may be others who achieved more than my parents but would still judge their emigration experience a failure.

The immigrant experience of America is definitely not the only one that matters when it comes to how people regard the American Dream, and whether it can realistically achieved. People born and raised here, with parents, grandparents, and other prior generations born here have had a different experience and a different set of expectations. Some people have cynically used (and continue to use) the success of my parents and their generation (and their children) as a way to blame black people with many generations of American heritage for their relative lack of achievement. The white grievance politics ascendant on the political right these days has found a ready audience among those who resent that the days of households where dad worked, mom stayed home with the children, and a high school education was enough for steady employment, a middle-class lifestyle, and being able to send those children to college are long gone. It is easier to blame immigrants, “wokeness”, and foreign aid for that changing than it is to acknowledge the reality that by both inertia and conscious policy choices, government and corporations both undermined each of the ten pillars the social mobility index framework is built upon. That’s why the American Dream–while still achievable–is harder.