This is the last day of 2016, a year that most definitely will not be missed. It’s hard to know whether people of good will can make 2017 any better.
The United States will begin the new year by ushering in a President who promises to “make America great again.” Unfortunately, with every utterance and tweet, it becomes more obvious that his definition of “greatness” is an autocratic wet dream unconnected to either the common good or reality.
As discouraging as it may be to admit, the truth is that a significant percentage of the American public is equally delusional, especially when it comes to accurate assessments of the extent of current inequality, and America’s past economic “greatness.”
A 2015 article in Scientific American took a look at both myth and reality. It was titled “American Inequality: It’s Much Worse Than You Think,” and subtitled, “The great divide between our beliefs, our ideals, and reality.”
The average American believes that the richest fifth own 59% of the wealth and that the bottom 40% own 9%. The reality is strikingly different. The top 20% of US households own more than 84% of the wealth, and the bottom 40% combine for a paltry 0.3%. The Walton family, for example, has more wealth than 42% of American families combined.
Remember this infographic video that went viral several months ago? According to the article, it has been watched more than 16 million times. I was one of those who was shocked by the distribution of wealth it showed, and I actually follow these matters fairly closely.
The great virtue of the Scientific American article, however, was not in schooling readers about the present chasm between the rich and the rest; it was in puncturing our ahistorical and fanciful belief that in America, success is an artifact of effort and hard work, that anyone willing to invest the necessary grit and determination can “make it,” and that American meritocracy means that entrepreneurial workers are not doomed to remain in whatever poverty or class they are born to.
It’s a lovely belief. The brutal reality, however, is very different.
In a study published early in 2015,
researchers found Americans overestimate the amount of upward social mobility that exists in society. They asked some 3,000 people to guess the chance that someone born to a family in the poorest 20% ends up as an adult in the richer quintiles. Sure enough, people think that moving up is significantly more likely than it is in reality. Interestingly, poorer and politically conservative participants thought that there is more mobility than richer and liberal participants…. We may not want to believe it, but the United States is now the most unequal of all Western nations. To make matters worse, America has considerably less social mobility than Canada and Europe.
This belief in American economic mobility doesn’t simply ignore the immense importance of family wealth and social connections, access to educational equality, and a wide range of discriminatory obstacles and structural social barriers.
Our stubborn belief in an American economic mobility that doesn’t exist creates an unwarranted optimism—an optimism that, ironically, is more prevalent among those at the bottom of the income distribution. And because we are optimistic—because we see opportunities that aren’t really there—we don’t get serious about correcting the social and financial structures that keep poor people poor.
The people who agreed with Trump that America was “great” at some indeterminate point in the past but is no longer so blessed seem to fall into two not mutually exclusive categories: those who resent the advancements of women, people of color and immigrants (America was great when “they” knew their place); and those who believe the mythology of a “lost” American mobility.
What would be great would be to make 2017 the year we began to restore content to our belief in American mobility and civic equality. A girl can dream….
Happy New Year.