Economic mobility in the United States has, according to a host of recent studies, now fallen below European levels. Forty-two percent of American men raised in the bottom fifth of incomes never manage to move up. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, how much a dad earns is highly predictive of how much his son will earn: High-income fathers in the United States are able to transmit 47 percent of their above-average earnings to their sons; in Denmark, a father’s high earnings boost a son’s income by no more than 16 percent. America’s educational system favors the rich even more flagrantly: According to another OECD report, a teenager’s performance in science classes is more dependent on his parents’ socioeconomic background in the United States than anywhere else in the developed world.
But the promise of social mobility remains much more real in the United States. In America, it is still possible for a lucky few to transcend their social station over the course of a lifetime. In Europe, even the most successful self-made men forever retain the mark of their lowly birth.
Consider the contrast between Bill Clinton and Margaret Thatcher. Clinton, whose father died in a car accident months before he was born, was initially raised by his grandparents, who operated a grocery store in Hope, Ark. Later he moved to Hot Springs, where his stepfather, a gambler and alcoholic, co-owned a modest car dealership. Thatcher comes from a rather similar background. Born in the distinctly unfashionable town of Grantham, Lincolnshire, England, she was raised above a grocery store owned by her father.
Against the odds, both Clinton and Thatcher rose to become leaders of their respective nations. But whereas Clinton is now unquestionably a member of America’s upper class, Britain’s upper class still regards Thatcher as the “greengrocer’s daughter”—somebody who feebly tried to mask her humble origins by taking elocution lessons. They may have thought she was an excellent prime minister—they may have even voted for her—but that doesn’t mean they think she belongs.
By distinguishing between social and economic mobility, we can remind ourselves what’s great about America—and yet acknowledge that it has a lot to learn from Europe. America’s class system may be less snobby, but there are tangible reasons why Europe has higher levels of economic mobility. From much better public schools in bad neighborhoods to much greater financial support for children born into poverty, most European countries simply do more to ensure that everyone has a real chance to succeed.
American politicians have finally started to acknowledge this point. But most of them still ignore another, equally important lesson. It is that mobility, important though it is in a society that aspires to be meritocratic, should never become the be-all and end-all of economic policy. As John Stuart Mill once pointed out, “if some Nero or Domitian were to require a hundred persons to run a race for their lives, on the condition that the fifty or twenty who came in hindmost should be put to death, it would not be any diminution of the injustice that the strongest or nimblest would […] be certain to escape.”
In other words, if average Americans have come to feel that the game is somehow rigged against them, it may be because it is harder for them to imagine their children winning the desperate race to the top. Another reason, though, is that the prospects for those who aren’t quick enough have gone from bad to worse. What’s truly frightening is not the supposed fact that America’s class system has become the same as Europe’s: It is that, even as a successful few have amassed vast fortunes, so many more have fallen hopelessly behind.