America has long subscribed to the myth of the self-made man. The 19 century tales penned by Horatio Alger Jr. of young men escaping poverty through hard work and determination promoted the belief in the rags-to-riches doctrine so beloved by Americans even today.
The problem is that the Horatio Alger story is more the exception than the rule. It is more likely that, hard work and perseverance notwithstanding, a poor American will remain as such. It's also more likely than not that their children will do no better.
For those finding it hard to jettison the national belief of unlimited opportunity, it's time to read the recent report prepared by the Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) entitled "A Broken Social Elevator? How to Promote Social Mobility."
That report details the results of a comparative study of member nations regarding their relative degree of social mobility. In other words, it ranks the countries on their ability to allow citizens to move up and down the social ladder. Among other things, the study measured how many generations it takes in each country for someone from the lowest income group to achieve the level of mean earnings.
Surprisingly, Canada ranks number one in terms of the absolute degree of social fluidity. The children of a Canadian manual labourer are just as likely to become managers as to remain as manual labourers themselves. Also near the top of this ranking are Nordic countries like Norway, Finland and Denmark, although that is not as surprising given their higher levels of taxation and social welfare spending.
I think the answer lies in the degree of government involvement and our national priorities.
What might be even more astonishing to Americans is the fact that the OECD study found that the United States lags behind Canada and many other countries. In fact, a poor Canadian seeking to better their lot or their child's lot in life is twice as likely to succeed as their American counterpart.
So what is going on here? Why does the United States with its incredible wealth fail to provide significant social mobility, whereas other countries fare much better?
In the case of Canada, I think the answer lies in the degree of government involvement and our national priorities. Single-payer health care is sacrosanct in Canada and automatically gives every citizen a leg up when it comes to bettering their life. If you don't have to worry about paying exorbitant health insurance premiums or, worse yet, worry about having no coverage and risking possible personal bankruptcy, your chances of getting ahead are likely to improve.
Likewise, if you have access to good public school systems and a post-secondary education that won't leave you burdened with huge debt, upward mobility is obviously easier to achieve. By way of contrast, the U.S. has, in recent years, diminished the quality of its public education system and made it increasingly difficult for low-income students to obtain a university education without taking on large-scale debt.
It would seem that government can function in different ways to promote social mobility. By centering on educational, health care and social welfare spending, Canada has obtained a fairer and more flexible social and economic structure and consequently a higher degree of social fluidity.
The United States, on the other hand, seems to be committed to lessening government involvement in these areas and thereby diminishing their citizens' chances to get ahead. The increasing income inequality experienced by Americans today is symptomatic of that lack of government commitment.
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The net result of that lack of commitment is what the OECD study calls "sticky floors and ceilings." In other words, with diminishing social mobility and increasing income inequality, people living in the highest and lowest income groupings tend to be stuck there as are their children and likely their grandchildren.
For America to regain its notion of being a true land of opportunity, some major structural changes seem to be in order. Changes like more funding of education at all levels, health care for all and a progressive income tax system aimed at resetting the current out-of-whack income structure. Maybe then Americans can look forward to some modern Horatio Alger stories of success.
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