picture: Todd Barrow, Flickr
To move up the social ladder is the American dream – to pull yourself up by the bootstraps and make it big. But is it really that easy in “the land of opportunity”? Sadly for Americans, it seems like the US doesn’t really live up to those expectations. In comparison with many other western countries, USA actually has one of the lowest rates of social mobility – significantly lower than the Scandinavian countries for instance. It is much harder for an American to advance their economic status than a Swede, a German or a Canadian.
Social mobility poses some questions of equal opportunity: Can a child become whatever she or he wants regardless of the parent’s background? Or how much of an individual’s income is depended on the social circumstances they were born into? The answers to these types of questions indicate the level of social mobility within a country. In a country with low social mobility, your social and economic standing is pretty much determined at birth. Or in other words, if your parents are of working class then it is very likely that you will be as well, but if your parents are rich, then the odds are you will be rich too. In countries with high social mobility it is of course the opposite – even if your parents lived in poverty, you might very well be able to rise to the top.
Studies on social mobility all suggest that the United States, along with Great Britain, have some of the lowest rates of social mobility among the industrialized countries. The United States also has one of the highest rates of economic inequality, a fact that might be linked to its social mobility numbers. If we put together data on social mobility and inequality we can clearly see a relationship; countries with high inequality also tend to have low social mobility. Such a connection has been dubbed “The Great Gatsby Curve”. While this might be a blow to the American self-image, it turns out that the American dream is alive and not only in the United States. So if you want to – in the words of 50 cent – “get rich or die tryin’, perhaps you should consider trying that in Canada or Scandinavia instead of the US.