Saving Horatio Alger: Equality, Opportunity, and the American Dream

Source: Richard V. Reeves, Brookings Institution, Brookings Essays, August 20, 2014

…There is a simple formula here—equality plus independence adds up to the promise of upward mobility—which creates an appealing image: the nation’s social, political, and economic landscape as a vast, level playing field upon which all individuals can exercise their freedom to succeed. Hence the toddlers who show up at daycare centers in T-shirts emblazoned “Future President.” Hence Americans’ culture of competitiveness, their obsession with sports, their frequent and all-purpose references to “the rules of the game” and to “fairness.” Hence the patriotism-tinged pride of the successful, exulting not only in their own grit and prowess, but also in the meritocratic system that gave them scope and opportunity. … While income disparities grab most of the attention & headlines, the gap that matters even more for mobility may turn out to be the one in wealth—and not just any wealth, but inherited wealth. Wealth gaps are already very much higher than income gaps. The top 1 percent takes twice as large a share of the national wealth as of national income. The danger is that these wealth gaps will get even larger in the years ahead. … These disadvantages typically compound each other, with low-income households, unstable families, and struggling parents living in the most hollowed-out communities, containing the worst schools, with the fewest social and institutional supports for those in need. So the barriers to upward mobility get even higher, along with the risks of getting stuck at the bottom of the ladder. … It hardly needs saying that there is no quick and easy fix. But there is also no excuse for sitting on our hands while the idea of opportunity becomes close to a cruel joke for so many. Opportunity is a public good, as well as a private one. …