Does the American Dream Exist Only in Europe?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 19 2012 6:40 AM

Does the American Dream Exist Only in Europe?

Perhaps. But if you think America’s class system is as rigid as Europe’s, then you don’t know an old-fashioned social hierarchy when you see one.

(Continued from Page 1)

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.



More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.


Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Sept. 17 2014 8:15 AM Ted Cruz Will Not Join a Protest of "The Death of Klinghoffer" After All
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 7:30 AM Ring Around the Rainbow
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.