Is This The End of the American Century?

This site features updates, analysis, discussion and comments related to the theme of my book published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2008 (hardbound) and 2009 (paperbound).

The Book

The End of the American Century documents the interrelated dimensions of American social, economic, political and international decline, marking the end of a period of economic affluence and world dominance that began with World War II. The war on terror and the Iraq War exacerbated American domestic weakness and malaise, and its image and stature in the world community. Dynamic economic and political powers like China and the European Union are steadily challenging and eroding US global influence. This global shift will require substantial adjustments for U.S. citizens and leaders alike.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Immobility Furthering Decline

Caleb Hamman

In a time of financial turmoil and drastic inequality, one would hope the American Dream to be functioning well. This notion, that hard work will bring success to anyone in the United States, has always been central to America’s ideological fabric. Despite such tradition, recent research suggests a need to reevaluate the accuracy of the American Dream.
Ongoing work at the Economic Mobility Project (EMP) has been attempting to do just that. A nonpartisan effort funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, EMP has been conducting the most detailed research of U.S. economic mobility to date. Its findings, thoroughly concerning, strongly reinforce the arguments of The End of the American Century.
Using longitudinal income data, EMP researchers find the United States to be a more class stratified society than commonly believed. Despite the popularity of “rags to riches” notions, the EMP finds that, on average, children born into the poorest fifth of households have only a 6 percent chance of making it to the top income quintile. Conversely, 42 percent will remain in the poorest group. More than six in ten of these impoverished children never become even middleclass.
Similar mobility barriers exist at the top. While 39 percent of children born into the richest income quintile will remain there, only 9 percent will fall to the bottom. EMP finds remnants of mobility remains in the middleclass, although even these children are more likely to fall into poverty than they are to rise to wealth.
The project’s findings are particularly disturbing in the areas of gender and race. Women, already suffering multifaceted disparity with men, are also less mobile than their male counterparts. Compared to these, it is considerably harder for women born into poor families to become wealthy. Similarly, it is also easier for wealthy women to become poor.
The racial contrast is even starker. Black children are half as likely as their white counterparts to move from extreme poverty to extreme wealth. Simultaneously, black children born into the bottom income bracket are almost twice as likely as white children to remain there. Incredibly, EMP finds that nearly three in four middleclass black children will fall into poverty—a condition tremendously difficult for them to escape.
As such findings suggest, the American Dream is not as dynamic as many believe it to be. In fact, U.S. mobility levels are actually lower than those of many developed countries. As the EMP reports, the two major international comparisons to date have placed U.S. mobility levels either last or second-to-last among nations analyzed (which have included mostly Western Europe and Scandinavia). As EMP’s authors put, “the view that America is ‘the land of opportunity’ doesn’t entirely square with the facts.”
In light of the numerous economic, political, and social issues contributing to U.S. decline, the discovery of immobility is particularly troubling. As Americans become more economically and politically unequal, the stakes of socioeconomic outcomes continue to rise. That these outcomes are out of the hands of many is more than a contributor to The End of the American Century—it is an issue of fundamental fairness and a contradiction of one of America’s most cherished ideals.

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