Rags to Riches Who Should Really Care

Sam Pizzigati

The defenders of privilege just don’t seem to get it. In truly decent societies we measure success by how many people are leading rich, fulfilling lives, not by counting how many people are becoming rich beyond measure.

Mobility, apologists for America’s grand fortunes love to argue, trumps inequality.

Our society may be deeply unequal, the argument goes, but that doesn’t really matter — because anybody in America, with a little grit, can get rich. In our “land of opportunity,” no one has any legitimate reason to grouse.

Researchers over recent years have unveiled a ton of data that demolishes this “land of opportunity” mobility mythology. Fewer and fewer Americans are getting ahead, they’ve documented, as America has become more unequal.

And the world’s most equal developed nations, researchers have also shown, have significantly more social mobility than the distinctly unequal United States.

In more equal nations, researchers at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported last year, it’s “easier to climb the social ladder and earn more than one’s parents.”

One statistical indication of how much easier: Of American men born into the nation’s poorest 20 percent, 42 percent stay there their entire lives. In more equal nations, the “immobile” share drops to 25 percent.

The wealthier in unequal societies, for their part, tend to hold on longer to the considerable advantages their wealth confers. Six generations have to pass, notes the Economic Mobility Project created by the Pew Charitable Trusts, before family economic leg-up disappears in the United States, but only three in Finland.

With America growing increasingly unequal, add Columbia University researcher Wojciech Kopczuk and his colleagues, “the very top is harder to reach unless you start very close to it.”

How have apologists for America’s top-heavy distribution of inome and wealth reacted to this hefty body of mobility myth-busting research? The hard-line free marketeers simply ignore the evidence and keep regurgitating the old claims.

America’s “poor don’t stay poor, the rich don’t stay rich,” as one defiant newspaper editorial proclaimed last week.

But the more sophisticated defenders of our unequal status quo have tweaked their tune. Most Americans, these sophisticates recognize, are resonating to the themes Occupy Wall Street is shoving onto America’s political stage. More and more Americans feel trapped in a “99 percent” that has no future.

In this political climate, savvy conservatives like Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan seem to clearly realize, the traditional defenses for inequality no longer have the credibility they once enjoyed.

Ryan and like-minded defenders of our contemporary top 1 percent still do celebrate America as a “land of opportunity.” But they’ve started acknowledging how hard average Americans today have to struggle to get by.

And in these troubled times, as Ryan openly admitted in a major address he delivered late last month to the right-wing Heritage Foundation, many Americans may begin to “question” just how much opportunity we really do have.

But struggling Americans, Ryan went on to exhort, must not let themselves fall prey to those who argue that “government’s role is to help them cope” — or entertain the notion that “most differences in wealth and rewards are matters of luck or exploitation, and that few really deserve what they have.”

“That’s the moral basis of class warfare,” objected Ryan, “a false morality that confuses fairness with redistribution and promotes class envy instead of social mobility.”

So what answer for our troubled times do Ryan and his fellow defenders of privilege have to offer? We must, they insist, end the government meddling with the “free market” that they claim created our current inequality in the first place.

“Absolutely, there’s huge income inequality, and it started right here in Washington,” as Ryan’s congressional colleague, Bill Flores from Texas, recently told a Politico reporter. “The way we fix that is getting the government out of the way of the private sector so we can put these people to work.”

The concentration of wealth and power within the top 1 percent, the Ryan crowd is in other words maintaining, isn’t gutting the American dream and creating inequality. Government is.

A clever — and totally bogus — assertion. Government has been “getting out the way” for over three decades now, and that’s why Americans are hurting.

Lawmakers over these years have undone the federal and state regulations that protect consumers and workers from corporate greed grabs. They’ve slashed the taxes rich people pay and squeezed the tax-funded government programs that help average Americans enter into — and thrive inside — the middle class.

Analysts have noted the irony here. Ryan and friends want to cut and eliminate the redistributive and social investment policies — everything from progressive taxation to quality early childhood education — that have successfully fostered mobility across generations in the world’s more equal nations.

But just observing this irony leaves unchallenged the myth at the core of the right wing’s defense of inequality: the notion that any society where people can go from rags to riches is working just fine — and needs no overhaul, no matter how unequal that society may be.

We should have challenged the absurdity of this claim ages ago. That some people can go from rags to riches, after all, tells us precious little about a society’s basic goodness.

Sign up for To MuchTake, for instance, the American slave South before the Civil War. No Americans in their right minds today would consider the slave South a good and decent society. We see that era as a time of exploitation and inhumanity. Yet the slave South had its rags-to-riches stories.

Under slavery, in certain situations, slaves could “buy” their freedom. Some freed slaves actually accumulated appreciable wealth. But these rags-to-riches stories in no way, of course, made slavery any less reprehensible.

Paul Ryan, predictably enough, talked up rags to riches in his widely ballyhooed Heritage Foundation address. A “recent survey of over 500 successful entrepreneurs,” he triumphantly noted at one point in his speech, had “found that 93 percent came from middle-class or lower-class backgrounds.”

The defenders of privilege just don’t seem to get it. In truly decent societies we measure success by how many people are leading rich, fulfilling lives, not by counting how many people are becoming rich beyond measure.

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies. Read the current issue or sign up at Inequality.Org to receive Too Much in your email inbox.

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