Credit: Stephen Ewen (owsposters.tumblr.com)

The idea that anyone can achieve the American dream is formative in U.S. culture, but recent studies suggest that for those pursuing such a dream, their best move might be a literal one – to Denmark. People often associate the U.S. with social mobility, as opposed to European countries, which we may think of as more class-bound. It turns out that sort of thinking has it backwards. In fact, the odds of escaping poverty in the U.S. are lower than in Canada and much of Western Europe. People in Denmark, which is among the most mobile countries, have twice the chance of escaping poverty as those in the U.S. (Leonhardt, 2014).

A number of factors contribute to decreased social mobility and increased wealth concentration in the U.S. Rising paychecks at the top are part of the problem, as is the fact that investments are outstripping economic growth, meaning in essence the best way to make money is to have money (and invest it). People in the lower, and even middle classes in the U.S. face huge challenges: stagnating wages (particularly for men), a waning labor movement, under- and unemployment, a weak safety net (government-provided benefits) compared to other Western countries, unequal educational opportunities, and skyrocketing costs for healthcare and college.

 

Opportunities for Research: Average hourly earnings climbed in 2018 and 2019 with low-wage workers experiencing the fastest growth for the first time in 10 years (Casselman, 2019). Wages grew quickest in states that raised their minimum wages, but wage growth has been uneven, with African American workers seeing smaller gains (Casselman, 2019). Yet wealth inequality remains high and is rising (Sawhill & Pulliam, 2019).

What is the status of income inequality, wealth inequality, and social mobility in the U.S.? What is the state of activist movements that advocate for greater wealth and income equality? What are the most effective strategies to counter inequality in the U.S.? Strategies to investigate include: progressive taxation; family-friendly and woman-friendly work policies; higher quality public education, particularly at the youngest ages; measures to make college more affordable for working- and middle-class families.

 

References

Casselman, B. (2019, May 2). Why Wages Are Finally Rising, 10 Years After the Recession. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/02/business/economy/wage-growth-economy.html

Leonhardt, D. (2014, January 23). Upward Mobility Has Not Declined, Study Says. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/23/business/upward-mobility-has-not-declined-study-says.html?_r=0

Sawhill, I., & Pulliam, C. (2019, June 25). Six facts about wealth in the United States. The Brookings Institution. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2019/06/25/six-facts-about-wealth-in-the-united-states/