Rags to Riches - An American Myth?

We're all familiar with these "rags to riches" tales:

J.K. Rowling lived on welfare while writing the Harry Potter books.

Sam Walton grew up milking cows on a farm during the Great Depression before eventually starting Wal-Mart and Sam's Club.

Oprah Winfrey grew up in a low-income, abusive home before getting a scholarship to college, being discovered by a local radio station, and eventually going on to lead a multi-billion-dollar media empire.

This January 4th New York Times article  highlighted the fact that these inspirational success stories - clung to by so many as evidence that the American Dream is still alive, and frequently used as fodder in the ongoing fight against social safety net programs and in widespread victim-blaming when it comes to the poor - are, in fact, increasingly rare in the United States. 

A graph from a 2006 (pre-recession!) Swedish study that analyzed economic mobility from birth through adulthood in the U.S. and several Western European countries illustrates this point:

Economists studying this issue divide societies up into income quintiles.  According to the Swedish study, only 8% of American men born into the bottom fifth of incomes rose to the top fifth in adulthood.  Another, broader study by Pew Charitable Trusts found that about 65% of all people born into the bottom fifth stayed in one of the two bottom fifths in adulthood.  Conversely, 62% of those born into the highest quintile stayed in one of the top two quintiles as adults.  This lack of mobility is significantly more pronounced in the United States than in the other Western countries studied over the same time period.

The data illustrates what many advocates already know: those born into lower-income families have a much harder time getting ahead than those born with more opportunities.   

But if the prevailing argument is that wealth, or at least financial security, can be attained simply by hard work, then the flipside is that those who are not wealthy or who are in fact poor are viewed by many as carrying the blame for that entirely on their own shoulders - and society treats them as such.  As Barbara Ehrenreich (author of Nickel and Dimed) discusses in a recent article , thinking about poverty in these individual terms is part of a long history of victim-blaming in the U.S.   She notes that many of the "anti-poverty" policies of the last half-century have been based on this ideology of victim-blaming, focusing on ameliorating the supposed cultural and individual "causes" of poverty rather than structural ones: welfare-to-work (even if the "work" is a minimum-wage job 2 hours away that your family can't survive on), drug testing for public assistance, just to name a couple.  And we all remember when Hermain Cain, former GOP presidential candidate, famously said, "If you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself." 

If only 8% of people make the leap from poverty to affluence, does it really make sense to continue praising that tiny minority, holding them up as shining examples of what we should all aspire to, while blaming the vast majority for being lazy?  Or should we instead look to the structural and policy issues that create barriers to financial stability for the poor and middle class while helping the rich get richer? 

As Ehrenreich points out, perhaps as more and more of us continue to find ourselves and our communities mired in the longest and deepest recession since the Great Depression, and those rags-to-riches stories become even rarer than before, we'll slowly start to grasp that poverty can't be fixed by blaming the individual.   

In any new assessment of American poverty, she asserts, "this time, we'll have to take account not only of typical Skid Row residents and Appalachians, but of foreclosed-upon suburbanites, laid-off tech workers, and America's ever-growing army of the 'working poor.'  And if we look closely enough, we'll have to conclude that poverty is not, after all, a cultural aberration or a character flaw.  Poverty is a shortage of money."

get updates