Another Unequal New Year?

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.



  1. The disconnect between the “American Dream” and reality is in itself a cause of much suffering and strife. The mental anguish that arises when society continuously tells you that you should be able to “make it” if only you worked hard enough, long enough cannot be ignored here.

    The poverty now so widespread in this country is not due to laziness. See with your own eyes the labors of multitudes working two jobs for pittance wages and no benefits. Telling young families who are struggling to put food on the table that it is their own fault for their plight is a cruelty beyond measure. Yet, that is exactly what this society does when those controlling the government and media endlessly sell the dream in order to keep a corrupt system going and assuage their own consciences of the guilt they feel for their greed.

    At the corner of Sherman and Michigan Streets there is a billboard that reads, “Why do 1 in 6 children struggle with hunger?” It is enough to make me weep.

  2. Sad to say, for the great majority, the term “social mobility” now means :: 1.) ‘I’ have a car, and 2). ‘a neighbor’ has a set of jumper cables.
    Hard to do the kind of rational thinking required when that is all one can think about while getting between home and the two jobs.

  3. Ah; “…the mythology of a “lost” American mobility.” The glass is half-full vs. the glass is half-empty can be applied here; “mobility” simply means “capable of moving or being moved”, this does not apply only to upward mobility. “American mobility” remains with us today; but the vast majority of Americans are simply moving backward or downward or are stuck in place.

    Primary news on the front page of the Star today is the retirement of Indianapolis Colt, Robert Mathis. He will retire a wealthy man, thanks in part to the assistance of our tax money. Also “above the fold” is the article “Senator to address Sharia concerns” regarding Senate Bill 16 which would prevent judges from using foreign law to impose a restriction that would violate a person’s constitutional rights. It does not mention Sharia, Muslim or Islamic but is another of the Republican religious protections pertaining to the 1st Amendment. Several other states already have such laws. Which direction is this taking us and why is it needed when we already have Pence’s RFRA (versions 1 and 2)? Enactment of this Bill could cause more discrimination against LGBTQ Hoosiers by supporting 1st Amendment religions freedom – for homophobes. LGBTQs have religious views, too. Pence has already promised/threatened to take his RFRA state law to the national level.

    “Our stubborn belief in an American economic mobility that doesn’t exist creates an unwarranted optimism…” I gave up on that belief decades ago; today my optimism only reaches the hope I will continue to survive; this is not only survival on an economic level but all that it entails. My Medicare payment went up as did my medical care co-pays but coverage has dropped in some areas. My Social Security check dropped slightly while costs of everything escalate and we have no idea what new tax surprises Trump has in store for all of us…except for lowering the rate for those in his income bracket. I won’t mention my deepest tax fear in case it hasn’t been considered yet but it is one of the few untaxable sources left for Trump to attack.

    “Another Unequal New Year?” I don’t need or want to be upwardly mobile economically or socially; I simply want to hang on to what I have worked for most of my adult life, and to be allowed the ability – and the right – to buy food AND the few medications I need to remain self-supporting in my declining lower-middle class old age.

  4. The misconception about social mobility was discussed at great length by Gunnar Myrdahl in the 1940s in his book “An American Dilemma.” He concluded that when people feel there is a chance to better their condition, they are less likely to rebel. And a complacent (however deluded) majority is what the one-percent want.

  5. Awesome update on the reality of The American Dream, the widening gap between the have and have nots, and especially the reality of a “great” America under Trump (the verbiage was unique, refreshingly descriptive, highly entertaining, understandable, concise and so right on. Love your writing style and the depth of your reporting, Sheila!!!!

  6. Upward mobility is one part education, one part motivation, one part learning from your mistakes, and about 50 parts luck. As Lefty Gomez said, “I’d rather be lucky than good.”

  7. “Another Unequal New Year?”

    I see 2017 as the arrival of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”; Trump, Pence, Ryan and McConnell.

  8. Peggy Hannon, upward mobility was the reward of a formula that came from the New Deal. Education and opportunity allowed people like my parents who had only high school diplomas in 1947 to work, save money, buy a house, start their own business and send my brother and I to two very good (Purdue and ISU) state colleges; all without incurring any debt. My parents never borrowed a dime for anything until a car loan in 2006.

    Our economic “system” was at one time set up for anyone to succeed and follow that upward path, but it is no longer a path that my kids have access to. My daughters are (nurse practitioner and veterinarian) are encumbered by student loan debt preventing them from ever buying a house. And I worry that my son’s epilepsy will keep him in perpetual poverty because the drugs he needs are taking up about a 1/3 of his wages.

    My kids haven’t made any mistakes other than thinking they could find that path to upward mobility, but the political ideology of the GOP and the debt from a senseless war is a burden that my kids didn’t ask for or vote fore, but they will pay the price.

  9. Both Piketty and Stiglitz discuss lack of social mobility from (largely) an economic point of view. Piketty especially points out how patromonial capitalism is one of the major culprits in depriving those who aspire to a fuller and more prosperous life through moving up the mobility ladder. Education is, of course, helpful if not necessary in order to move up, but lately that doesn’t seem to matter all that much, either, as increasingly innovative robots and other more efficient managerial methodologies are competitive in supplanting humans in the job marketplace.

    Piketty writes that the best indicator of success for such aspirants is who your parents are. Sometimes education and parentage are combined, as with Trump at the University of Pennsylvania and Bush the Younger at Harvard, both legacy graduates. When your father pops with millions to such universities’ endowment funds, your diplomas are guaranteed after sleeping through four years or more in classrooms, which in my opinion amounts to indictment of the educational institutions involved in selling sheepskins for lucre. Success does not depend upon hard work, good morals and ethics etc.; it depends upon who your folks happen to be. There are those who have been successful in the oil business (Bush, Sr.) and real estate promotion (Trump, Sr.) who serve as examples of Piketty’s thesis. Their children seem dedicated to enriching the already rich and taking from the poor to assure that the rich maintain their relative positions in contemporary society, a situation Piketty writes cannot endure. I hope he’s right.

  10. Great post. “they” just keep voting against their own best interest; I have never been able to understand how it a major political can hoodwink enough voters into believing their BS, but give the Devil his due.

  11. The Democrats came to a fork in the road during the primaries. The choice of direction removed the party farther from its base of New Deal policies.

    “Neoliberalism vs. New Deal: Bernie, Hillary and what’s really at stake in this primary
    Democrats aren’t just picking a candidate. They’re choosing their party’s economic course for a generation to come. ”

    From Salon, April 2016.

  12. I appreciate the information on this and other issues, particularly the documented “facts”. I always come to the question of what can be done about these issues, and would enjoy discussions of how we can change the situation. Your thoughts on this would be very interesting.

  13. When we lived in Mexico we were not surprised by either the breadth or depth of the poverty that we observed. It was every bit as bad as we expected.

    What did surprise me was the resilience of the poor to their condidtoon.

    So being an amateur anthropologist I tried to figure why their culture felt different to me than our culture.

    My completely unscientific research concluded that a major factor was that the poor were so poor that they didn’t have TV.

    Media advertising is a major force in our culture whose primary theme is be unhappy, there’s so much more you could have (if you can afford it).

    Of course if you can you buy, the great consumer society is born and sustained. If you can’t though what happens is frustration and class anger. If you don’t have media access though you assume that wealthy people are there by fate, you are where you are by fate, and fate is like a deck of cards (box of chocolates?). Some fates are fortunate and powerful most are ordinary.

    Now it’s too late to stuff all of that toothpaste back into the tube here but what I’m afraid of is that all of that anger from pervasive exposure to advertising first got a totally unqualified government elected and pushed social stability much closer to a tipping point.

    That’s why 2017 strikes me as a dangerous watershed year in America. That’s a very dangerous and unstable combination. Inept, aristocratic government, bad economics due to isolation in a global marketplace, an angry frightened populace, and a narcissistic sociopathic leader.

  14. Just a friendly challenge , Sheila :
    PROVE what you have just alleged Paragraph ,by paragraph. MATERIAL proof that one can pick up , weigh , and measure . NO quotes from other sources . Just tangible 3 dimensional material proof.
    ” A girl can dream”.
    If people would just quit thinking with the right hemisphere ( where their imagination driven thinking patterns originate), and try to utilize more left sided common sense , analytical- linier thinking , problems be addressed , and solved.
    Stop meditating , do something , and release the sacred masculine to once again solve problems , and quit feeling good about being miserable.

  15. Sheila’s non-stop reading and analysis as well as the comments of her readers are always food for thought.

    It has become so noticeable that young people with college educations cannot get jobs that enable payoff of college loans. When will the realtors and the rest of the business community realize that they will suffer too when most Americans cannot buy homes, cars, appliances, vacations, and college educations for THEIR kids? Empires with this much inequality don’t last.

    Unfortunately, Trump SAYS he wants to make America great again, but his cabinet is filled with the 1% who make billions while begrudging any increase in the minimum wage or Social Security for our elderly who can no longer work or Medicare for retirees with medical needs or housing assistance for those who need shelter or contraceptive care for mothers who cannot afford more children or who foreclose on homes for 29 cent shortfalls in mortgage payments. This group has distinguished itself by making America meaner and poorer again.

  16. BSH; could “sacred masculine” have something to do with Trump’s claim that his tiny hands do not mean he also has a tiny penis. Or maybe Mark has problems of his own in that area. Has Gopper been reincarnated on this New Years Eve of 2017, “the age of destruction”?

    Nancy Papas; I do not even have the heart to say Happy New Year to anyone; knowing it in my heart it is an impossibility and a lie. Let’s make a pact, those of us in this blog family who understand what lies ahead; to meet here one year from tonight, on the eve of 2018 to see who of us has survived and what condition we and this country are in at that time.

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