America Ranks Toward the Bottom of Social Mobility

The myth of American success is one of the most enduring ideals of this nation. Wrapped in the language of liberty and freedom, this myth promulgates the belief that every person born in America is afforded a clean slate of equal opportunity. Though this myth has adjusted itself to each generation, two themes remain consistent: Neither family lineage nor class can control one’s destiny. And moral virtue and personal character determine one’s success in life. This is why the narratives of self-made men and women are a central part of American culture and religious life. (But so are Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny!)

The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) has released a report that should deflate this nation’s inflated sense of self and fundamentalist devotion to “free-markets.” According to their findings, social mobility measured according to earnings, wages and education across generations is relatively low in relation to other developed nations such as Canada, Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Spain.

For instance, in terms of earnings levels, nine developed countries, including France, offer greater mobility than the United States. The U.S. only tops Italy and Great Britain. And the U.S. ranks the highest in terms of the influence of parental background on student achievement in secondary education.

So what’s the moral of the story? If you want your children to have more opportunity than you, pack your bags and move to Sweden! Or maybe, as Americans, we can stop promoting the lie of “rugged individualism” and “personal liberty” and acknowledge how much our nation needs sound governmental regulations and social policies such as healthcare reform, reinvestment in public education, and a living wage to short-circuit this nation’s dash to the bottom.

jonathan.walton@mac.com'

Jonathan L. Walton is assistant professor at Harvard Divinity School. His lastest book is: Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Religious Broadcasting (New York University Press).