It’s the essence of the American Dream, Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches tales in which anyone, with pluck and hard work, can start life at the bottom and rise to the top. The popular, formulaic author left this earth in 1899, but the image he drew of a nation that counts upward mobility as a birthright has long outlived him.
Too long, the weight of evidence suggests.
This edition of The Next Economy, a quarterly supplement published jointly by The Atlantic and National Journal, explores whether it’s time at last to bury Alger’s Ragged Dick. This isn’t to be done lightly, for an end to such ambitions menaces our sense of living in a land of opportunity, one that promises a better life for our children, if not for ourselves.
In the cover story, Jim Tankersley travels to Colorado to visit a father and his 29-year-old son. Neither has a college degree, but while the father has thrived, the son barely scrapes by. Blame globalization and the collapse of U.S. manufacturing for this ugly fact: To assure yourself a place in the middle class, hard work is no longer enough; a college degree is a must. Yet the difficulties that the not-already-advantaged face in earning that degree—check out Alina Tugend’s advice on how to surmount them—could make meritocracy yet another barrier to success.
But wait, the news gets worse. The growing gap between poor and rich in the United States has made it that much harder to leap higher. Jonathan Rauch finds emerging evidence that income inequality isn’t only a moral hazard but also a danger to the U.S. economy, by threaten-ing instability and dampening growth. And if the public comes to believe that its faith in the future is a thing of the past, watch out. Ronald Brownstein warns that a more stratified nation could bring a polarization beyond what we already know.
Egad, are we turning into Europe, with its feudal-cum-aristocratic soul? Prominent conservative Charles Murray and liberal icon Robert Reich both say yes. So, what can we do about it? On this, these two public intellectuals are as polarized as everyone else.
OK, here’s the place to end on a note of optimism.
Um, sorry, no can do.
This article appears in the September 21, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.