One of the central themes of the American mythology is the concept of the “American Dream,” which says that in America, no matter your background, if you work hard you can achieve success and upward social mobility. The American Dream is rooted in ideals of democracy, individual rights, and equal opportunity that can be found in the country’s founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. However, a new report has found that in the United States, having wealthy parents is a better predictor of a person’s chances of success than how much they work.
The report, called the World Economic Forum’s Global Social Mobility Index, ranked 82 countries according to their citizens’ capacity to realise their potential irrespective of their socioeconomic background. The report looked at five different dimensions of nations’ economies: health, education, access to technology, work, and protection of institutions. The Nordic countries, including Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland, ranked nearest the top of the list, whereas France, Canada, Japan, and the United Kingdom all ranked ahead of the United States, which was listed in 27th place. Closer to the bottom of the list are Russia, China, Brazil, India, and South Africa; some of these countries are known for human rights violations and authoritarian regimes, which undoubtedly contribute to their lack of opportunity for upward social mobility.
The countries that provide the highest opportunity for upward social mobility are the same countries that offer their citizens access to high-quality public education, opportunities to work in good conditions, and social safety nets. In Denmark, for instance, a child who is born into poverty has a similar chance of success in life, measured by high income, as a child born with wealthy parents. In the United States, on the other hand, unfair wages and weak social safety nets makes it substantially more difficult for the children of poor parents to move up in society. In fact, the report found that in the United States, it takes five generations for a low-income family to reach median income.
In addition to diagnosing the problems of each country in connection with obstacles to social mobility, the report also recommends solutions for each country to engage in in order to address these deficiencies. Among the recommendations are more progressive and balanced income tax structures to prevent wealth from being concentrated in the hands of the very few and to provide funding for social safety nets. The report also advises businesses to pay more fair wages and invest in allowing their employees to develop skills that can enhance their productivity. According to Klaus Scwhab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, “the response by business and government must include a concerted effort to create new pathways to socioeconomic mobility, ensuring everyone has fair opportunities for success.”