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

Published: Saturday, Aug. 29 2015 1:58 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) 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.

A portrait of Robert McDaniel (standing in the back) with his mother, sister and brother during his childhood. (Robert McDaniel) A portrait of Robert McDaniel (standing in the back) with his mother, sister and brother during his childhood. (Robert McDaniel)

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.

Robert McDaniel, a school administrator whose family rose from humble circumstances, reminisces while standing in front of his boyhood home. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Robert McDaniel, a school administrator whose family rose from humble circumstances, reminisces while standing in front of his boyhood home. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

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.

Robert McDaniel sits in his backyard. McDaniel, who grew up with little money, made education a priority and is now an assistant school superintendent in a Utah school district.   (Michael De Groote, Deseret News) Robert McDaniel sits in his backyard. McDaniel, who grew up with little money, made education a priority and is now an assistant school superintendent in a Utah school district. (Michael De Groote, Deseret News)

"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

The American Dream has always been an amorphous idea, meaning different things to different people, says Mark Edwards, the executive director of Opportunity Nation, a nonpartisan campaign to increase economic mobility. "In the broader sense, it is the idea that no matter who you are, no matter what your background is, that if you work hard you should be able to improve your lot in life and take care of you and your family."

Robert McDaniel stands in front of his boyhood home in Salt Lake City  on Tuesday, July 10, 2012. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Robert McDaniel stands in front of his boyhood home in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 10, 2012. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

Politicians across the political spectrum worry that ideal may be under threat. Former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum argued last fall that economic mobility was actually easier to achieve in many parts of Europe than it is in America, a position supported by an article in the National Review, a conservative magazine.

According to a 2006 study by Miles Corak, Germany is 1.5 times more mobile than the United States. Canada is almost 2.5 times more mobile. Denmark is three times more mobile. A similar study that year by Swedish economist Markus Jantti found similar results. Of those born at the bottom in Denmark, only 25 percent are stuck there. In Britain it is 30 percent. Where Pew found that only 4 percent born at the bottom in America will make it into the top fifth of income, Jantti found 14 percent of Danish people in the bottom rise to the top fifth in their country.

Robert McDaniel when he was a child in the 1970s in Magna, Utah. McDaniel is assistant superintendent of the Murray School District in Murray, Utah. (Robert McDaniel) Robert McDaniel when he was a child in the 1970s in Magna, Utah. McDaniel is assistant superintendent of the Murray School District in Murray, Utah. (Robert McDaniel)

Edwards agrees there is a problem — and it isn't just comparing the U.S. to other countries. "The American Dream was more accessible to people 40 or 50 years ago than it is today," he says.

But long-term historical data that goes back to the first half of the last century or earlier is not easy to find, says Erin Currier, project manager at Pew's Economic Mobility Project.

"The academic community doesn't have a clear feeling or determination that economic mobility has changed over time," she says.

Since hard data similar to Pew's 1960s/2000s studies isn't available, people look at the social and economic issues known to affect opportunity. For example, Edwards looks at the level of education and training people needed to get a good job today compared to four or five decades ago. "There was a time, not that long ago, when simply having a high school degree was enough to give you access to a job, a career, a lifestyle," he says. "But those kinds of jobs are much less plentiful than they were 30 years ago. That is a real structural change."

A family portrait from when Robert McDaniel was a young child (middle standing in the back) in Salt Lake City. McDaniel is assistant superintendent of the Murray School District in Murray, Utah. (Robert McDaniel) A family portrait from when Robert McDaniel was a young child (middle standing in the back) in Salt Lake City. McDaniel is assistant superintendent of the Murray School District in Murray, Utah. (Robert McDaniel)

Edwards also points to the demographic changes in families, such as more children being born to single mothers. He says he isn't making a moral judgement but a structural observation. "It is a significant change," he says.

The most troubling aspect of the new Pew study, researchers say, is what it says about those at the very bottom: 43 percent will stay there, and those that get out won't make it very far. Seventy percent only make it to the next rung in the ladder, meaning their household income never rises above $44,000 a year.

"That really does call into question Americans' perception of equality of opportunity and what makes our country unique," Currier at Pew says.

Of those who start at the top, 40 percent are locked in at the top. Experts call this persistence at the top and bottom ends "stickiness."

"It is particularly acute now because if you marry 'stickiness' with increasing income inequality you essentially have a caste system," says Edwards at Opportunity Nation. "You don't have motion. You have real inequality. That is just not what this country is founded on. That's not the best that we have to offer."

But Currier says this is a "glass half empty" view because it only captures "relative mobility" — measuring how people stack up compared to their parents.

A concept called "absolute mobility" provides a fuller picture, Currier says. As she explains it, if relative mobility is like a ladder or stairs, absolute mobility is more like an escalator with everybody moving up together. "As the economy grows and gets stronger, it can propel a lot of people up along the income distribution," Currier says. "And that is, in fact, what the data show."

And what the data shows is that as absolute income has increased, Americans across income levels make more than their parents, and this is even true at the bottom.

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."

Nevada, for example, measures high in income but poor on other scales such as violence and on-time-high-school-graduation rates and so has an opportunity score of 21.3 on the index (100 being perfect), Edwards says. By contrast, Minnesota does well in multiple areas and scores 81.2. Utah's score is 75.6.

The complexity of the factors affecting opportunity and economic mobility also come into play with African-Americans. Sixty-eight percent of blacks in the middle of income distribution have downward mobility into the bottom two-fifths of income, according to the Pew study. Only 30 percent of whites fall from the middle.

"There are a lot of African-American families that are secure, that are in the middle to higher income distribution, but the neighborhoods in which they live and the environment in those neighborhoods actually increases rates of downward mobility," Currier says.

Policy and politics

Accurate statistics about opportunity can help lead to better laws and programs, Currier says. "Without good data, policymakers will not be able to implement good policy."

She says economic mobility is an extremely unifying and nonpartisan concept.

"There is so much talk about how toxic the political environment is … but our experience with this project has been the opposite," she says. "The American public believes in the American Dream — and believes that there is a role for government to play in promoting opportunity. And policy makers from across the political spectrum also cite economic mobility as an important goal for policy for the nation as a whole. I feel hopeful about that."

Back in West Valley City, McDaniel says he is optimistic that people still have opportunity. "But it takes a lot of work and motivation," he says. "I'm not sure everyone will do it. It isn't just opportunity, it is people taking advantage of opportunity."

When he was a kid, McDaniel's American Dream included three things.

"First, I was never going to drink powdered milk again and no more of that stupid puffed wheat cereal," he says. "Second, my house needed to have a garage. And third, I had to have air-conditioning."

McDaniel travels back up the economic ladder to his modest home in a nice West Valley City neighborhood. The drive is short, but the direction is what makes the difference. The grass is greener in the cul-de-sac. The playsets and in-ground trampolines are in the backyards. The fences are wood or cinder block. Cars are parked, for the most part, in garages. And air-conditioners hum like cheerful cicadas in the summer heat.

In some ways he is still the same person for whom his mother sacrificed so much. Like her, he believes in education and the possibilities that come from hard work. But he no longer sleeps on the couch and he doesn't leave the door open at night.

"I lock the doors," he says, and then adds with a laugh, "I lock them in the day."

Email: mdegroote@desnews.com, Twitter: @degroote, Facebook: facebook.com/madegroote

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