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Moving on up: Can the American Dream still become a reality today?

Published: Saturday, July 21 2012 5:53 p.m. MDT

Robert McDaniel stands in front of his boyhood home in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 10, 2012.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

It's the middle of the night, and the front door of the small split-level home in Magna, Utah, is left open.

Rob McDaniel, a skinny fifth-grader, sleeps on the couch next to his younger brother Paul. They lay head to foot like they always do. The unlucky child sleeps on the edge of the couch but often ends up on the floor with a thud.

The door is open so their mutt, Waggles, can come and go. The windows are open because there is no air-conditioning. Their slightly-older sister sleeps in another room.

No adults will come to help them if they call out. The father, a traveling photographer and salesman, left years ago. Their mom studies during the day to become a teacher and works the graveyard shift as a nurse. If their dreams are interrupted by a noise that sounds to them like a crook, all they can do is scramble off the couch and burrow under piles of clothes in the house. They hold their breath — listening and waiting for the dawn.

For some Americans, that dawn never comes. A new study just released by Pew Charitable Trusts' Economic Mobility Project finds that 43 percent of the people raised at the bottom fifth (households making less than $28,900 a year), stay at the bottom. Seventy percent of those raised at the bottom make less than $44,000 a year. A measly four percent struggle their way from the bottom up to the top fifth of earners in America.

That would seem to spell doom for the American Dream, but it's only part of the story. Other data suggest upward income mobility is still a hallmark of life in America: the same Pew survey found that 84 percent of Americans exceed their parents' income, and that 93 percent of those born in the bottom fifth do better than their parents. Another Pew survey found that 68 percent believe they have achieved or will achieve the American Dream.

McDaniel also believes. Three decades after sharing a couch with his brother, he is a 44-year-old success story and embodies the promises America offered just a generation ago, and perhaps still offers.

It's Sunday, and he is resting in a comfortable easy chair with his feet up. His white dress shirt tail is pulled out after a long day at church. Against one wall of the living room is an oak Weber upright piano, a symbol of the suburban stability he has achieved, a reminder of how far up the economic ladder he has climbed.

"I knew we had less than other people," McDaniel says. "I remember worrying if somebody gave me money for a birthday present, because I felt I should ask my mother if we needed to spend it on milk."

McDaniel walks into another room and comes back with an iPad in a leather case. After a few taps and swipes, his personal history appears on the screen. Up and down he scrolls through the story of his life looking for photographs of when he was a child. A minute later he opens a large scrapbook, which has only a few small family portraits of a blond-haired wisp of a kid with his sister and brother. In one photograph his mother looks tired but has determination in her eyes.

"I think it would be hard for someone like my mom to do today what she did years before," he says. "She started from complete scratch."

Later in the day, McDaniel drives in his 2011 Toyota Corolla to his old home. It is only 2.2 miles from where he now lives, but in some ways, it's like driving down the economic ladder. As he looks at the small house he grew up in, he thinks about how different it seems. It is just a house to him.

"I do think things have changed, and it is harder now to move up," he says, "but it is still possible."

The climb to the top

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