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

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

While this much absolute mobility, by itself, is encouraging, Currier says, taking absolute and relative mobility together gives a more nuanced picture. Together, they depict people on an escalator moving up together, while some people switch relative positions as they step up or down on the moving stairs.

Scott Winship, a Fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institute, says that as a society grows richer, absolute mobility (being better off than your parents) becomes less important.

"It was more important that all of society became richer when everybody was farming and living hand-to-mouth," he says. "When society is that poor, absolute mobility is more important than equal opportunity to move up and down the ladder.

"When we get to be a rich society, as we are today, it becomes in some sense more important whether you are able to climb the rungs of the ladder. But if you are still starting out at the bottom and can only aspire to a limited amount of things when you become an adult, that goes against all of the ideals of the American Dream."

When McDaniel stops by his old house in Magna, he notices a few changes. The house is surrounded by a low chain-link fence — even across the driveway. A mini-satellite TV dish peeks over the eaves. A large garage (added by his mom before she moved) is on the side of the home. There is a trampoline and two sets of playground equipment in the front yard, something he didn't have when he lived there. He may be looking at a house occupied by someone a few rungs down the ladder on the income distribution scale, but it's seems better than what he experienced when his family occupied a similar rung.

"The grass is a little better than when we lived here," he says before driving away.

Before his mother had enough money to buy the small home in Magna, the family lived in a duplex in Salt Lake City. They called it "The Shop" because his grandfather, who owned the building, had his appliance repair business in the other unit. It was surrounded by railroad tracks, gangs and crime.

"When we moved to Magna we thought we were rich," he says. But his mother worked really hard, McDaniel says. "She wanted things to be better for us," he says. "She was a real proponent of education."

Her children did learn. They learned how to do the laundry, how to cook. They had to get themselves up in the morning to walk to school. "We learned a lot of skills from a very early age," McDaniel says.

By the time he was a teenager, his mother's efforts were paying off — the family was thoroughly middle class. "Mobility started with her," he says. Her extraordinary example of hard work and learning made another difference. McDaniel made education his vocation and is now the assistant superintendent in the Murray School District.

Opportunity factors

At the heart of the American Dream is equal opportunity for children — wherever they are born and in whatever condition — to rise above their situation. The factors affecting that opportunity are varied and complex. Opportunity Nation identified three major categories of these factors: economics, education and community.

Economic factors include things like income, spending and access to the Internet.

In the educational area are high school graduation rates, spending per pupil and percentage of adults with higher education.

Community factors include things like the number of churches or civic groups, volunteerism rates, crime rates, health care quality and availability of healthy foods.

Using all of these factors, Opportunity Nation created an online index measuring how well communities foster opportunity and the American Dream. The searchable index is at OpportunityNation.org.

"Opportunity is not just about money and it is not just about jobs," Edwards says. "Those are critical pieces, but if you are in a community where the number of primary care physicians is significantly less than other places it actually inhibits opportunity. If you are in a community that has no access to healthy foods, that is another inhibitor."

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