In the first GOP debate, nearly every candidate anecdotally inserted the “American Dream” into their answers at some point or other. Politically, this is a smart move. If candidates can describe their journey in a way that endears them to the American people, it could generate a boost in the polls. But what it also tends to generate, almost reflexively, is a new meditation by The New York Times on the plausibility of believing in the American Dream. The reflection this time is from Nicholas Kristof, whose article, “U.S.A., the Land of Limitations?” is adorable in its expectation that Times readers will see the question as genuine and probing rather than transparently rhetorical.
Kristof laments how hard it is for a person in the bottom economic fifth, or quintile, to reach the top one—they have an average 4 percent chance, although 60 percent of those born into the bottom quintile move up out of it in their lifetimes. That means a poor person has a greater likelihood of moving up than of staying put. Since Kristof is only interested in tracking “rags to riches” stories, he passes over data that suggest less exciting but genuinely attainable opportunities for upward mobility in America. A reasonable interpretation of the American Dream is the capacity to go from the lowest class to the middle class, yet Kristof is pursuing only lowest-to-highest transformations.
Sociologists Show Upward Mobility Benefits Most
Sociologists Mark R. Rank and Thomas A. Hirschl suggest a different picture. Since for many households economic conditions don’t stay the same across life spans, individuals tend to shift around the income distribution spectrum throughout their working lives.
Rank and Hirschl find that nearly three-fourths of the population will spend at least one year in the top 20 percent of the income distribution. This is a far more fluid rendering of economic opportunity in America. (Rank and Hirschl also find that this fluidity goes in the other direction: between the ages of 25 to 60, 62 percent of the population will experience one year below the 20th percentile of the income distribution.)
In an article for the Times from earlier this year entitled “American Dream? Or Mirage?” three researchers talked up the function of the American Dream motif for Americans, both rich and poor. For the rich, the American Dream validates their hard work. For the poor, the same notion gives them hope that a greater share of the economic pie remains attainable for them. Each group sees in the American Dream what it needs to see: for the rich, the notion is explanatorily powerful; for the poor, it is motivationally powerful.
Capitalism Makes the American Dream Possible
The Times, of course, is no different. It, too, stands to gain from taking a particular stance on the viability of the American Dream. If the Dream is actually a “mirage,” then this supports redistributive policies the editors favor. A narrative that says the Dream can’t become reality allows the Left to prescribe welfare expansion. How so? If upward social mobility is no longer possible organically, then the Left reasons that it must be revitalized artificially, through redistributive policies.
What’s interesting is that liberals are too busy trying to justify welfare to be bothered to consider actual measures of welfare. A report put out by the U.S. Census Bureau, for example, finds that 64 percent of households possess the full set of appliances and electronic goods used as a partial indicator of material well-being. Seventy-eight percent of all households reported experiencing no hardships at all during the past year. Why not see in the gains of capitalism—the gains that have enabled appliances and goods to become widely available and completely affordable—the realization of the American Dream?
If my father’s life under the poverty threshold years ago and my life in poverty today look radically different due to capitalism, why construe our “poverty” as commensurate? Why continue to define the American Dream with reference to opportunity rather than to material conditions? If we use the latter to determine whether the Dream still exists, we can see plainly that it does, given that material conditions have soared, even if inequality also has.
But let’s return to the notion of the American Dream as involving, crucially, the capacity for upward mobility. At the beginning of his article, Kristof cited Sen. Marco Rubio’s implicit reference to the American Dream. On the debate stage, Rubio spoke movingly of his mother and father’s efforts to supply him with opportunities they had never enjoyed. Starting from nothing, they worked extremely hard to expand Marco’s horizons. What propelled their family to advance, according Rubio, wasn’t a government program, but rather a work ethic consistent with and supported by conservative proposals.
This vision is incompatible with the liberal program for boosting mobility, which it sees as inimical to economic growth. Democrats have argued that increases in material goods secured through redistributive policies enhance advancement opportunities. Republicans, for their part, promote a growth agenda that involves minimizing, not maximizing, government interference. On this view, government can certainly facilitate greater mobility, but it can do so only by reforming itself rather than by expanding itself.