Are we the best nation on Earth?
Americans take pride in American dominance the way Yankee fans take pride in the number of World Series trophies they've won over the years. We have a certain arrogant swagger that is born from winning. Nothing breeds confidence like success.
But the Yankees are a sports team, not a nation. Sports have winners and losers and the outcome is cut and dry. Life on the other hand isn't so clear-cut. What do we use to define this "number 1" status?
Is it because we are the land of opportunity? We are told from the time we are a child that anyone can grow up to be President. That anyone can go from the poorhouse to the penthouse. We are sold on images of rags to riches stories. But are they real? Not necessarily.
Recent studies have shown that upward mobility is on the decline in the U.S.
A classic social survey in 1978 found that 23% of adult men who had been born in the bottom fifth of the population (as ranked by social and economic status) had made it into the top fifth. Earl Wysong of Indiana University and two colleagues recently decided to update the study. They compared the incomes of 2,749 father-and-son pairs from 1979 to 1998 and found that few sons had moved up the class ladder. Nearly 70% of the sons in 1998 had remained either at the same level or were doing worse than their fathers in 1979. The biggest increase in mobility had been at the top of society, with affluent sons moving upwards more often than their fathers had. They found that only 10% of the adult men born in the bottom quarter had made it to the top quarter.
The Economic Policy Institute also argues that social mobility has declined since the 1970s. In the 1990s 36% of those who started in the second-poorest 20% stayed put, compared with 28% in the 1970s and 32% in the 1980s. In the 1970s 12% of the population moved from the bottom fifth to either the fourth or the top fifth. In the 1980s and 1990s the figures shrank to below 11% for both decades. The figure for those who stayed in the top fifth increased slightly but steadily over the three decades, reinforcing the sense of diminished social mobility.