Inequality means that some income earners claim a larger slice of the pie than others. Some might argue that this is less of a problem in and of itself if everyone has an equal shot at winding up at the top. Some even claim that this is the essence of the American dream: that regardless of where you began, if you work hard, you can have all the opportunities to succeed.
Unfortunately, income mobility—movement between income classes—is less common than purveyors of the American dream would have you believe. If all it took was high test scores to get ahead, then no matter what your income, you would have an equal opportunity to graduate from college. The data tell another story. This chart shows that high-income students who have low test scores are more likely to graduate from college than low-income students with high test scores.
Mobility is more restricted for some groups than others. African Americans who start out in the bottom 25% of the income distribution are nearly twice as likely to stay there than whites. And, whites are more than 10 times more likely to make it to the top 25% of the income distribution than blacks.
This version of the American dream is actually less common in the United States than in many peer nations. This chart shows the relationship between a son’s earnings and his father’s earnings. A far higher portion of a son’s earnings in the United States can be explained by his father’s earnings, illustrating once again the relatively low income mobility found in this country.
Even gains in life expectancy have been unequal in recent decades. The bottom half of the earnings distribution has seen gains of less than two years, while those in the top half have seen gains of 6.5 years.