Is America Still the Land of Opportunity?

America is the land of opportunity. I once believed that. After all, I had an uncle when I was growing up -- a man who was much older than me, but who was living evidence that America was a land of opportunity.

My uncle was born around the turn of the last century.  High school bored him, so he dropped out and instead went to work as an office boy.  As an office boy, he made himself stand out by taking on extra chores beyond those required of him. Eventually his enthusiasm for work was noticed by his managers and, when he was a bit older, they offered him a job in sales.

My uncle approached sales the same way he had approached office work: He went the extra mile for his customers.  They appreciated it and gave him so much business that he became the top salesman in his company. After that, he rose through the ranks to become sales manager, then district sales manager, then the vice president of sales.  And he didn't stop there.

By the time he retired, my uncle was chairman of the board.  A real life Horatio Alger story.  Growing up, I didn't need to look further than my uncle to see proof America was the land of opportunity.

By most accounts, there was a time when it was true that people had a better chance of success in America than they did in other countries.  Is that still the case today?

Not according to The Equality Trust -- which is a British organization that specializes in studying socioeconomic equality.  After studying upward social mobility in many countries, The Equality Trust summarized their findings in this graph:

As you can see, the US ranks lowest out of the eight countries studied in terms of upward social mobility. And that means the best advice you could give anyone seeking to better their lot is "immigrate to one of those seven other countries".

You might also notice the chart shows that where income inequality is high, upward social mobility is low.  I have nothing against people getting rich.  But there seems to be something wrong when only a few get rich and the rest get poorer. 

My uncle's generation is long gone now.  And perhaps gone with it is America's leadership as the land of opportunity.  I don't know if we will ever recapture that.


  1. Good point Paul. On a personal level, the graph gave me hope. (Our daughter lives in Germany.)

  2. Part of the reason that Western European countries and Canada have seen better economic mobility is that they have better social safety nets than America does. The freedom to not have to worry about where one's medical care and retirement are coming from makes launching a new business less risky on a personal level. Here, it's much easier to do that if you are already rich.

  3. I'd really feel more comfortable with that chart if there were more "numbers" on the side and bottom.

    I'm definitely on the side of taxing the wealthy, and even the upper middle class, more to pay for things like universal medical care, but I tend to distrust even the organizations I subscribe to, like Nation, when it comes to presenting facts that support their position.

  4. Loren, you raise a good point and one that I apparently need to be reminded of now and then. That is, I've noticed I have a tendency to be less critical of sources that support my views than I am of sources that contradict my views. I've been struggling to correct that but it seems to require a life-long effort rather than a one-time fix.

    Having said that, I take the findings of The Equality Trust to be evidence, but not strong evidence, of their position. I agree with you that, if they want to establish a general relationship between income inequality and low social mobility, they need to look at many more countries than they did.

    However, I think that the work they've done suggests a relationship between income inequality and low social mobility in the eight countries they studied.

    In other words, I think their evidence is not strong enough to affirm a general relationship, but might be strong enough to affirm a relationship for a specific handful of countries.

    I hope that makes some sense. Please feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.

  5. I hadn't thought of that, Cujo, but I can see how a strong social security net could encourage business start ups. I also think it might encourage them by relieving some of the financial burdens faced by small businesses. Such as the burden of providing health care to their employees in order to attract skilled and talented workers.

  6. Donna, I hear Germany has suffered somewhat less than the US in terms of employment and poverty since the Great Recession hit us. Is that true?

  7. All the countries mentioned who are in the upper quadrant of the graph have a strong social safety net, strong banking system supported by real regulations and an open market place also regulated and with trusts prevention systems to ensure a competitive market where consumers have a choice.
    All things the U.S. have been fighting against since the second world war and even Democrat Bill Clinton did his best to destroy opening the way for the current fiscal situation.

  8. When I saw the chart, I was reminded of Mark Twain's quote:
    "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics."

    I was thinking along the lines of Loren's comment, which you have discussed.

    It would be interesting to see the numbers, as I wonder if the USA's "rich" are so rich that they are masking the chances of upward mobility. Or, to put numbers to it, I wonder if a "successful" case of upward mobility is the equivalent of $200K/year in Sweden, but $2500K/year in the USA.

    It's really tricky to chart these abstract concepts in a realistic way, but pretty easy to make the numbers say what you want them to say.

  9. America has never been the land of opportunity for people of color as a matter of historical truth it has been a place where the essence of contempt and inequality are core values for those of us who are non- white..what is revealing is now observing once middle class whites lamenting over inequality .,WTF..of course they will not be demonized and attacked like negroes and coloreds lol lol

  10. Wise Fool -- Now I'm curious. I need to dig into this and see if the figures are collaborated.

  11. Potsoc -- It's tragic, but I believe you're right: We are dismantling the very programs that are prudent, humane, and simply make sense.

  12. Thrasher -- I think you might be wrong. From what I've seen, the poor in this country are and always have been demonized. But I'll grant that the poor of color are even more demonized than those who are not of color.


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