Equality, Opportunity, and the American Dream

Equal opportunity must and will remain the quintessential American ideal. The challenge is to live up to it.

National Journal
Richard V. Reeves
Aug. 20, 2014, 1 a.m.

Richard V. Reeves is a fel­low at Brook­ings, where his re­search in­terests in­clude is­sues re­lated to so­cial mo­bil­ity, fam­il­ies and par­ent­ing, and in­equal­ity. Pri­or to his Brook­ings ap­point­ment, he was dir­ect­or of strategy to the UK’s Deputy Prime Min­is­ter; dir­ect­or of Demos, the Lon­don-based polit­ic­al think-tank; and so­cial af­fairs ed­it­or of The Ob­serv­er news­pa­per. Richard is also ed­it­or-in-chief of So­cial Mo­bil­ity Memos, a Brook­ings blog.

Sav­ing Hor­a­tio Al­ger

On a warm spring even­ing in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., a fleet of lim­ousines and town cars de­livered hun­dreds of guests, be­decked in black tie and long gowns, to a gala cel­eb­ra­tion of the Amer­ic­an Dream: the an­nu­al awards night for the Hor­a­tio Al­ger As­so­ci­ation of Dis­tin­guished Amer­ic­ans.

Twelve new mem­bers (11 men, one wo­man) were honored for hav­ing ris­en from child­hood poverty to po­s­i­tions as cap­tains of com­merce or cel­eb­rated pub­lic ser­vants. Colin Pow­ell, a 1991 award re­cip­i­ent, was among those in the audi­ence. The new mem­bers’ speeches were brief, strik­ing a bal­ance between pride and hu­mil­ity, and all hew­ing to the rags-to-riches theme: “Who would have thought that I, from a farm in Min­nesota/small town in Kan­sas/Little Rock, raised in an orphan­age/with no in­door plumb­ing/work­ing mul­tiple jobs at 16, would end up run­ning a $6 bil­lion firm/a U.S. am­bas­sad­or/em­ploy­ing 10,000 people. Only in Amer­ica!”

The ce­re­mony had the feel of an act of wor­ship and thanks­giv­ing be­fore the al­tar of the so­ci­ety’s name­sake.

The cli­max of the even­ing came with the ar­rival on stage of more than 100 stu­dents from poor and troubled back­grounds to whom the So­ci­ety had awar­ded col­lege schol­ar­ships, an an­nu­al rite that over the years has dis­trib­uted more than $100 mil­lion to de­serving young people. Tom Sel­leck read to the 2014 schol­ars an in­spir­a­tion­al pas­sage of po­etry from Car­ol Sap­in Gold (“The per­son who risks noth­ing does noth­ing, has noth­ing and is noth­ing “¦”) and the Ten­ors sang “Forever Young” as a gi­ant Amer­ic­an flag was slowly un­furled from the ceil­ing. The ce­re­mony had the feel of an act of wor­ship and thanks­giv­ing be­fore the al­tar of the so­ci­ety’s name­sake. It was a genu­inely mov­ing ex­per­i­ence, even for me — and I’m a Brit.

Vivid stor­ies of those who over­come the obstacles of poverty to achieve suc­cess are all the more im­press­ive be­cause they are so much the ex­cep­tions to the rule. Con­trary to the Hor­a­tio Al­ger myth, so­cial mo­bil­ity rates in the United States are lower than in most of Europe. There are forces at work in Amer­ica now — forces re­lated not just to in­come and wealth but also to fam­ily struc­ture and edu­ca­tion — that put the coun­try at risk of cre­at­ing an os­si­fied, self-per­petu­at­ing class struc­ture, with dis­astrous im­plic­a­tions for op­por­tun­ity and, by ex­ten­sion, for the very idea of Amer­ica.

Many coun­tries sup­port the idea of mer­ito­cracy, but only in Amer­ica is equal­ity of op­por­tun­ity a vir­tu­al na­tion­al re­li­gion, re­con­cil­ing in­di­vidu­al liberty — the free­dom to get ahead and “make something of your­self” — with so­ci­et­al equal­ity. It is a philo­sophy of egal­it­ari­an in­di­vidu­al­ism. The meas­ure of Amer­ic­an equal­ity is not the in­come gap between the poor and the rich, but the chance to trade places.

In his second in­aug­ur­al ad­dress in 2013, Barack Obama de­clared: “We are true to our creed when a little girl born in­to the bleak­est poverty knows that she has the same chance to suc­ceed as any­body else, be­cause she is an Amer­ic­an; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”

Pres­id­ent Obama was not say­ing that every little girl does have that chance, but that she should. The mor­al claim that each in­di­vidu­al has the right to suc­ceed is im­pli­cit in our “creed,” the De­clar­a­tion of In­de­pend­ence, when it pro­claims “All men are cre­ated equal.” In his first draft of that his­tor­ic doc­u­ment, Thomas Jef­fer­son was more ex­pans­ive, writ­ing that all were cre­ated “equal and in­de­pend­ent.” Al­though the word was ed­ited out, the sen­ti­ment was not.

The De­clar­a­tion was a state­ment about the re­la­tion­ship between the United States and Great Bri­tain, but it was also a state­ment about Amer­ic­ans them­selves. The United States was to be a self-made na­tion com­prised of self-made men. Alex­is de Toc­queville — the first of many clev­er French­men to wow the Amer­ic­an read­ing classes — suf­fused his Demo­cracy in Amer­ica with ad­mir­a­tion of the young na­tion’s “manly and le­git­im­ate pas­sion for equal­ity,” while Ab­ra­ham Lin­coln ex­tolled his coun­try­men’s “geni­us for in­de­pend­ence.”

There is a simple for­mula here — equal­ity plus in­de­pend­ence adds up to the prom­ise of up­ward mo­bil­ity — which cre­ates an ap­peal­ing im­age: the na­tion’s so­cial, polit­ic­al, and eco­nom­ic land­scape as a vast, level play­ing field upon which all in­di­vidu­als can ex­er­cise their free­dom to suc­ceed. Hence the tod­dlers who show up at day­care cen­ters in T-shirts em­blazoned “Fu­ture Pres­id­ent.” Hence Amer­ic­ans’ cul­ture of com­pet­it­ive­ness, their ob­ses­sion with sports, their fre­quent and all-pur­pose ref­er­ences to “the rules of the game” and to “fair­ness.” Hence the pat­ri­ot­ism-tinged pride of the suc­cess­ful, ex­ult­ing not only in their own grit and prowess, but also in the mer­ito­crat­ic sys­tem that gave them scope and op­por­tun­ity.

Richard V. Reeves is a fel­low at Brook­ings, where his re­search in­terests in­clude is­sues re­lated to so­cial mo­bil­ity, fam­il­ies and par­ent­ing, and in­equal­ity. Pri­or to his Brook­ings ap­point­ment, he was dir­ect­or of strategy to the UK’s Deputy Prime Min­is­ter; dir­ect­or of Demos, the Lon­don-based polit­ic­al think-tank; and so­cial af­fairs ed­it­or of The Ob­serv­er news­pa­per. Richard is also ed­it­or-in-chief of So­cial Mo­bil­ity Memos, a Brook­ings blog.

Sav­ing Hor­a­tio Al­ger

On a warm spring even­ing in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., a fleet of lim­ousines and town cars de­livered hun­dreds of guests, be­decked in black tie and long gowns, to a gala cel­eb­ra­tion of the Amer­ic­an Dream: the an­nu­al awards night for the Hor­a­tio Al­ger As­so­ci­ation of Dis­tin­guished Amer­ic­ans.

Twelve new mem­bers (11 men, one wo­man) were honored for hav­ing ris­en from child­hood poverty to po­s­i­tions as cap­tains of com­merce or cel­eb­rated pub­lic ser­vants. Colin Pow­ell, a 1991 award re­cip­i­ent, was among those in the audi­ence. The new mem­bers’ speeches were brief, strik­ing a bal­ance between pride and hu­mil­ity, and all hew­ing to the rags-to-riches theme: “Who would have thought that I, from a farm in Min­nesota/small town in Kan­sas/Little Rock, raised in an orphan­age/with no in­door plumb­ing/work­ing mul­tiple jobs at 16, would end up run­ning a $6 bil­lion firm/a U.S. am­bas­sad­or/em­ploy­ing 10,000 people. Only in Amer­ica!”

The ce­re­mony had the feel of an act of wor­ship and thanks­giv­ing be­fore the al­tar of the so­ci­ety’s name­sake.

The cli­max of the even­ing came with the ar­rival on stage of more than 100 stu­dents from poor and troubled back­grounds to whom the So­ci­ety had awar­ded col­lege schol­ar­ships, an an­nu­al rite that over the years has dis­trib­uted more than $100 mil­lion to de­serving young people. Tom Sel­leck read to the 2014 schol­ars an in­spir­a­tion­al pas­sage of po­etry from Car­ol Sap­in Gold (“The per­son who risks noth­ing does noth­ing, has noth­ing and is noth­ing “¦”) and the Ten­ors sang “Forever Young” as a gi­ant Amer­ic­an flag was slowly un­furled from the ceil­ing. The ce­re­mony had the feel of an act of wor­ship and thanks­giv­ing be­fore the al­tar of the so­ci­ety’s name­sake. It was a genu­inely mov­ing ex­per­i­ence, even for me — and I’m a Brit.

Vivid stor­ies of those who over­come the obstacles of poverty to achieve suc­cess are all the more im­press­ive be­cause they are so much the ex­cep­tions to the rule. Con­trary to the Hor­a­tio Al­ger myth, so­cial mo­bil­ity rates in the United States are lower than in most of Europe. There are forces at work in Amer­ica now — forces re­lated not just to in­come and wealth but also to fam­ily struc­ture and edu­ca­tion — that put the coun­try at risk of cre­at­ing an os­si­fied, self-per­petu­at­ing class struc­ture, with dis­astrous im­plic­a­tions for op­por­tun­ity and, by ex­ten­sion, for the very idea of Amer­ica.

Many coun­tries sup­port the idea of mer­ito­cracy, but only in Amer­ica is equal­ity of op­por­tun­ity a vir­tu­al na­tion­al re­li­gion, re­con­cil­ing in­di­vidu­al liberty — the free­dom to get ahead and “make something of your­self” — with so­ci­et­al equal­ity. It is a philo­sophy of egal­it­ari­an in­di­vidu­al­ism. The meas­ure of Amer­ic­an equal­ity is not the in­come gap between the poor and the rich, but the chance to trade places.

In his second in­aug­ur­al ad­dress in 2013, Barack Obama de­clared: “We are true to our creed when a little girl born in­to the bleak­est poverty knows that she has the same chance to suc­ceed as any­body else, be­cause she is an Amer­ic­an; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”

Pres­id­ent Obama was not say­ing that every little girl does have that chance, but that she should. The mor­al claim that each in­di­vidu­al has the right to suc­ceed is im­pli­cit in our “creed,” the De­clar­a­tion of In­de­pend­ence, when it pro­claims “All men are cre­ated equal.” In his first draft of that his­tor­ic doc­u­ment, Thomas Jef­fer­son was more ex­pans­ive, writ­ing that all were cre­ated “equal and in­de­pend­ent.” Al­though the word was ed­ited out, the sen­ti­ment was not.

The De­clar­a­tion was a state­ment about the re­la­tion­ship between the United States and Great Bri­tain, but it was also a state­ment about Amer­ic­ans them­selves. The United States was to be a self-made na­tion com­prised of self-made men. Alex­is de Toc­queville — the first of many clev­er French­men to wow the Amer­ic­an read­ing classes — suf­fused his Demo­cracy in Amer­ica with ad­mir­a­tion of the young na­tion’s “manly and le­git­im­ate pas­sion for equal­ity,” while Ab­ra­ham Lin­coln ex­tolled his coun­try­men’s “geni­us for in­de­pend­ence.”

There is a simple for­mula here — equal­ity plus in­de­pend­ence adds up to the prom­ise of up­ward mo­bil­ity — which cre­ates an ap­peal­ing im­age: the na­tion’s so­cial, polit­ic­al, and eco­nom­ic land­scape as a vast, level play­ing field upon which all in­di­vidu­als can ex­er­cise their free­dom to suc­ceed. Hence the tod­dlers who show up at day­care cen­ters in T-shirts em­blazoned “Fu­ture Pres­id­ent.” Hence Amer­ic­ans’ cul­ture of com­pet­it­ive­ness, their ob­ses­sion with sports, their fre­quent and all-pur­pose ref­er­ences to “the rules of the game” and to “fair­ness.” Hence the pat­ri­ot­ism-tinged pride of the suc­cess­ful, ex­ult­ing not only in their own grit and prowess, but also in the mer­ito­crat­ic sys­tem that gave them scope and op­por­tun­ity.

Al­ger vs. Bel­lamy

Al­ger-style up­ward mo­bil­ity has al­ways con­tained at least an ele­ment of myth, of course, and the myth­maker him­self, Hor­a­tio Al­ger, would al­most cer­tainly not have won an award from the so­ci­ety named after him. Al­ger was born in 1832 in­to the mod­est, com­fort­able home of his Unit­ari­an min­is­ter fath­er in Chelsea, Mas­sachu­setts, and died in the mod­est, com­fort­able home of his sis­ter, 20 miles away in South Nat­ick. Al­though he en­joyed con­sid­er­able suc­cess with some of his chil­dren’s books, for the most part he made a barely ad­equate liv­ing from writ­ing, and had to sup­ple­ment his in­come with tu­tor­ing. Al­ger’s own life, then, neither star­ted in rags nor ended in riches.

But it is the stor­ies he wrote that mat­ter, and these ul­ti­mately sold hun­dreds of mil­lions of cop­ies around the world, the largest num­ber by far in his own coun­try, pre­cisely be­cause they so vividly em­bod­ied the na­tion­al creed. A cen­tury after his death in 1899, he still ranked as the fifth best-selling au­thor in U.S. his­tory.

Al­ger’s most fam­ous book, Ragged Dick — Or, Street Life in New York With the Boot-Blacks, was pub­lished in 1868. Its shoe­shine boy hero is be­friended by Mr. Whit­ney, a kindly pat­ron who ut­ters the ma­gic words: “In this free coun­try poverty in early life is no bar to a man’s ad­vance­ment. “¦ Save your money, my lad, buy books, and de­term­ine to be some­body,” thus in­spir­ing Dick to be­have in a man­ner that ul­ti­mately res­ults in his be­com­ing Richard Hunter, Esq., a pros­per­ous mer­chant. All Al­ger’s books have sim­il­ar themes — boys of good mor­al char­ac­ter who work hard and do right, find a pat­ron will­ing to help them (there is al­ways an ele­ment of luck in the tales), and even­tu­ally es­cape their poverty-stricken ori­gins.

Al­ger’s ideal has faced crit­ics from the very be­gin­ning. In 1875 Mark Twain pub­lished “The Story of the Good Little Boy,” a short but with­er­ing par­ody of Ragged Dick. Twain’s hero, Jac­ob Blivens, em­bod­ies all the fabled Hor­a­tio Al­ger vir­tues: “he al­ways obeyed his par­ents “¦ he al­ways learned his book, and nev­er was late at Sab­bath-school.” But Blivens comes to a tra­gic end in an ex­plo­sion at an iron foundry. “Thus per­ished the good little boy who did the best he could,” con­cluded Twain, his sar­casm squarely aimed at Al­ger, “but didn’t come out ac­cord­ing to the books. Every boy who ever did as he did prospered ex­cept him. His case is truly re­mark­able.”

Ed­ward Bel­lamy en­vi­sioned a so­cial­ist uto­pia marked by per­fect egal­it­ari­an­ism

In 1888, Al­ger’s fel­low Mas­sachu­setts writer Ed­ward Bel­lamy moun­ted a more ser­i­ous chal­lenge to the boot­straps ideal in his best­selling nov­el Look­ing Back­ward: 2000-1887 — a trick title, since Bel­lamy was de­scrib­ing a pos­sible fu­ture. The nov­el’s Rip Van Winkle-ish nar­rat­or is look­ing back on the 20th cen­tury from the vant­age of the year 2000, after the United States has made a peace­ful trans­ition to a cent­rally planned, so­cial­ist so­ci­ety. In­come is di­vided equally among cit­izens by means of what Bel­lamy called “cred­it cards,” each with the same value and lim­it.

The book was a sen­sa­tion. In 1900, two years after Bel­lamy’s death and 12 years after the book’s pub­lic­a­tion, it was still num­ber three on the charts, trail­ing only Ben-Hur and Uncle Tom’s Cab­in. Yet, un­like Al­ger’s, Bel­lamy’s name and work have long since passed out of na­tion­al con­scious­ness.

Bel­lamy was by far the bet­ter writer, but his polit­ic­al philo­sophy was ali­en to the Amer­ic­an spir­it. He en­vi­sioned a so­cial­ist uto­pia marked by per­fect egal­it­ari­an­ism. Not sur­pris­ingly, his book was a run­away suc­cess in Europe. Al­ger, by con­trast, had a philo­sophy closer to clas­sic­al lib­er­al­ism, and would have wanted each and every cit­izen in the year 2000 to have the com­bin­a­tion of free­dom, in­de­pend­ence, and op­por­tun­ity to qual­i­fy for a very dif­fer­ent sort of cred­it card — the plat­in­um and black ones is­sued by Amer­ic­an Ex­press.

“Go West, Young Man”

Though Hor­a­tio Al­ger’s own life did not fol­low the rags-to-riches script, it was al­most cer­tainly dur­ing his life­time that his storylines came closest to mir­ror­ing real life for many. In the 19th cen­tury, the United States pulled im­mig­rants in, pushed its bor­ders out, and al­lowed men with sharp el­bows and big am­bi­tions to make for­tunes, vast and fast.

Op­por­tun­it­ies to move up in what was still the New World were great­er, per­haps, than in any oth­er so­ci­ety at any oth­er peri­od in his­tory. The rob­ber bar­ons — An­drew Mel­lon, John D. Rock­e­feller, Henry Clay Frick, Cor­neli­us Vander­bilt, and An­drew Carne­gie — were all men who made the most of the un­reg­u­lated, boom­ing eco­nomy to amass huge wealth, hav­ing star­ted with little more than their wits.

Two factors, already em­bed­ded deep in the na­tion’s psyche, were driv­ing up­ward mo­bil­ity: school­ing and mov­ing. From its very be­gin­nings the U.S. was un­sur­passed among na­tions in its zeal for edu­ca­tion. Steeped in the val­ues of the Scot­tish En­light­en­ment, the Founders were pas­sion­ately com­mit­ted to school­ing, one of the great en­gines of so­cial and eco­nom­ic ad­vance­ment. Jef­fer­son was so proud of his brainchild, the Uni­versity of Vir­gin­ia, that he in­struc­ted that his role as “Fath­er” of that in­sti­tu­tion be in­scribed on his tomb­stone as one of his three sig­nal ac­com­plish­ments — along with “Au­thor of the De­clar­a­tion of Amer­ic­an In­de­pend­ence.” As early as 1850, two-thirds of Amer­ic­an chil­dren between five and 14 were in school (two-thirds of white chil­dren, it should be said), while back in Eng­land and Wales the pro­por­tion was only half. High­er edu­ca­tion was slower to de­vel­op — in 1860 there were just 381 col­leges in the United States — but with the ad­vent of land-grant col­leges, the U.S. quickly over­took the U.K. on this front, too. There are now over 7,000 post-sec­ond­ary in­sti­tu­tions in the United States.

From its very be­gin­nings the U.S. was un­sur­passed among na­tions in its zeal for edu­ca­tion.

Amer­ic­ans’ up­ward mo­bil­ity was due also to their be­ing, lit­er­ally, a people on the move. In just a single dec­ade, the 1870s, half of all white Amer­ic­an men un­der the age of 30 moved from one county to an­oth­er. A quarter moved to a dif­fer­ent state. Obey­ing Hor­ace Gree­ley’s in­junc­tion to “Go West, young man,” am­bi­tious and en­tre­pren­eur­i­al cit­izens were in per­petu­al mo­tion, usu­ally to find work or claim some land to farm. The easy avail­ab­il­ity of land in the ever-ex­pand­ing na­tion — its size had in­creased more than four-fold since its found­ing — was key to its be­ing “the land of op­por­tun­ity,” of­fer­ing mil­lions of set­tlers the chance to ac­quire at least some wealth in the form of prop­erty.

The up­wardly mo­bile ty­coons had of course amassed riches vastly great­er in scale, but their money was so new that it had not yet be­gun to ac­cu­mu­late over suc­cess­ive gen­er­a­tions. While wealth in­equal­ity re­mained well be­low European levels, in­come in­equal­ity was rising rap­idly. This dis­tinc­tion between in­come and wealth, all too of­ten lost in de­bate, is im­port­ant. In­come is a “flow” of money, typ­ic­ally from wages; while wealth is a “stock” of money, in prop­erty, shares, or oth­er as­sets. While they ob­vi­ously over­lap, in­equal­it­ies in in­come and wealth in­equal­ity are not the same thing.

In the first half of the 20th cen­tury, after the clos­ing of the fron­ti­er, the rap­id growth of the na­tion slowed, with the res­ult that both in­come and wealth gaps widened to European pro­por­tions, and the en­gines of up­ward mo­bil­ity stalled. With the Great De­pres­sion, Stein­beck’s The Grapes of Wrath sup­planted Al­ger’s Ragged Dick as the em­blem­at­ic story of the times.

Amer­ica’s de­cis­ive role in World War II and its sub­sequent emer­gence as a su­per­power gave rise to the Great Prosper­ity: a new surge of eco­nom­ic en­ergy along­side size­able gov­ern­ment in­vest­ments in in­fra­struc­ture, the mil­it­ary, sci­ence, and So­cial Se­cur­ity, and a re­com­mit­ment to edu­ca­tion, not least through the G.I. Bill. Between 1950 and the mid-1970s, as the U.S. eco­nomy grew by an av­er­age of 4 per­cent a year, the eco­nom­ic ex­pan­sion drove wages and em­ploy­ment up, and in­come and wealth gaps nar­rowed. High taxes — high by his­tor­ic­al stand­ards, any­way — were levied on those with the biggest in­comes and greatest wealth, and the gov­ern­ment provided more ser­vices and cash as­sist­ance to the poor as part of Lyn­don John­son’s vis­ion for the “Great So­ci­ety.” Up­ward mo­bil­ity may not have im­proved; but since stand­ards of liv­ing were rising at about the same rate across the in­come dis­tri­bu­tion, most people were much bet­ter off than their par­ents had been, even if they re­mained on the same rung of the in­come lad­der.

From the mid-1970s on, however, the mass prosper­ity ma­chine began to grind to a halt; pro­ductiv­ity stag­nated and growth slowed as glob­al com­pet­i­tion in­tens­i­fied. In­equal­ity trends re­turned to their pre-war tra­ject­ory, with those on the top rungs climb­ing ever fur­ther up­ward, helped along by Ron­ald Re­agan’s tax cuts, while those at the bot­tom and in the middle lagged be­hind. George H.W. Bush broke his “no new taxes” pledge, but did noth­ing to al­ter the grow­ing fis­sure between the rich and the rest. 

Bill Clin­ton’s elect­or­al suc­cess pres­aged a peri­od of strong eco­nom­ic growth and some res­tor­a­tion of the for­tunes of the middle class. But U.S. polit­ics soon veered to the right. With the elec­tion of George W. Bush as pres­id­ent and the emer­gence of a new strand of pop­u­lism cul­min­at­ing in the mus­cu­lar Tea Party move­ment, the right­ward drift con­tin­ued, and the care­fully tied knots of fin­an­cial reg­u­la­tion were quietly loosened, one by one. Mo­bil­ity rates re­mained flat.

The elec­tion of Barack Obama fleet­ingly signaled a new, more op­tim­ist­ic mood, the prom­ise of a more gen­er­ous, post-par­tis­an polit­ics, and a re­newed com­mit­ment to the up­ward mo­bil­ity Amer­ic­ans be­lieve in so fer­vently. Here was a pres­id­ent whose elec­tion seemed a test­a­ment to Amer­ica’s pro­gress, and whose per­son­al story proved, so it seemed, that the Hor­a­tio Al­ger story could be re­writ­ten for a multi-ra­cial na­tion. The up­lift was short-lived. Today, the na­tion is limp­ing away from the eco­nom­ic car-crash of 2008. Polit­ics re­mains deeply par­tis­an. And yes, mo­bil­ity rates are still flat.

Al­ger on the Ropes 

Lack of up­ward mo­bil­ity is sour­ing the na­tion­al mood. As ho­ri­zons shrink, an­ger rises. The polit­ic­al right has done a bet­ter job, so far, of con­vert­ing frus­tra­tion in­to polit­ic­al gain, by suc­cess­fully — if im­plaus­ibly — lay­ing the blame for many of Amer­ica’s woes at the door of “Big Gov­ern­ment.” Much of the polit­ic­al en­ergy on the left has been dir­ec­ted against the highest earners — the top 1 per­cent of the in­come dis­tri­bu­tion. But while Oc­cupy Wall Street gen­er­ated plenty of head­lines, it has pro­duced pre­cious few votes, and only a trivi­al change in the tax sys­tem: since 2013, mar­ried couples mak­ing more than $450,000 a year have had to pay just an ex­tra nick­el of tax on each dol­lar above that level.

The prob­lem is not that the United States is fail­ing to live up to European egal­it­ari­an prin­ciples, which use in­come as a meas­ure of equal­ity. It is that Amer­ica is fail­ing to live up to Amer­ic­an egal­it­ari­an prin­ciples, meas­ured by the prom­ise of equal op­por­tun­ity for all, the idea that every child born in­to poverty can rise to the top.

Take one stand­ard in­dic­at­or of mo­bil­ity: the like­li­hood that chil­dren will, as adults, as­cend to a high­er rung on the in­come lad­der than their par­ents. In a com­pletely mo­bile, flu­id so­ci­ety, a child raised on the bot­tom rung of the in­come lad­der (usu­ally defined as the bot­tom fifth of the dis­tri­bu­tion) would the­or­et­ic­ally have as good a chance as any of mak­ing it to the top, and no great­er risk of re­main­ing trapped at the bot­tom. But the U.S. suf­fers from a high de­gree of in­tergen­er­a­tion­al “stick­i­ness” at the bot­tom of the in­come dis­tri­bu­tion. Chil­dren born on the bot­tom rung have a four in 10 chance of re­main­ing stuck there in adult­hood (between 36 per­cent and 43 per­cent, de­pend­ing on the data­set), and a very slim chance (between 4 per­cent and 10 per­cent) of mak­ing it to the top.

+ (Cour­tesy Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion)

It is not just the fact of be­ing born poor that height­ens the risk of stay­ing poor, but poverty’s bale­ful ac­com­pani­ments — in par­tic­u­lar in­ad­equate edu­ca­tion and fam­ily in­stabil­ity. A child raised by a poor, un­mar­ried moth­er has a 50 per­cent risk of re­main­ing stuck on the bot­tom rung of the lad­der, and just a 5 per­cent chance of mak­ing it to the top. Even cruel­er odds (54 per­cent and 1 per­cent re­spect­ively) face those who fail to com­plete high school.

U.S. up­ward mo­bil­ity per­form­ance looks bad by in­ter­na­tion­al stand­ards, too. In fact, the “Amer­ic­an Dream” looks to be in bet­ter shape north of the bor­der, in Canada. Why? Ex­plan­a­tions in­clude wider dif­fer­ences in school qual­ity with­in the United States, high­er rates of teen preg­nancy, and a big­ger gap in col­lege gradu­ation rates by fam­ily back­ground.

But there is an­oth­er factor, too: ra­cism, past and present. There are stark dif­fer­ences in mo­bil­ity rates for dif­fer­ent ra­cial groups, es­pe­cially between Caucasi­ans and Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans. Half the black chil­dren grow­ing up on the bot­tom rung re­main stuck there as adults (51 per­cent), com­pared to just one in four whites (23 per­cent).

The stain of ra­cism is a stark, de­press­ing re­mind­er of how far short of its found­ing ideals the na­tion still falls. Even with the leg­al scaf­fold­ing of Amer­ic­an ra­cism dis­mantled — and even with an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an in the White House — black chil­dren live in the poorest neigh­bor­hoods and at­tend the worst schools; they have the low­est chance of gradu­at­ing col­lege, and the highest risk of in­car­cer­a­tion.

—-

The race gap is only the most vivid sign that birth is all too of­ten des­tiny in Amer­ica. While Amer­ic­ans have al­ways been his­tor­ic­ally more tol­er­ant of in­come in­equal­ity than their European cous­ins, this was gen­er­ally true either be­cause the av­er­age stand­ard of liv­ing was rising across the board (the “rising tide floats all boats” con­sol­a­tion), or be­cause there was lots of move­ment up and down the in­come lad­der (the “Hor­a­tio Al­ger” ideal), or both. But the U.S. now faces a threefold threat: stag­nant growth in stand­ard of liv­ing, a big gap between the rich and the rest, and low rates of up­ward mo­bil­ity.

For the first time ever, most par­ents in the U.S. think their chil­dren will be worse off than them­selves, ac­cord­ing to polling by the Pew Found­a­tion. Two-thirds of Amer­ic­ans think the gap between the rich and the rest of so­ci­ety has grown in the last dec­ade, and the same pro­por­tion be­lieve gov­ern­ment should do more to close this gap (al­though there are sharp dif­fer­ences of opin­ion between Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an voters on this score). Faith in the Hor­a­tio Al­ger ideal re­mains, but has been shaken. Sixty per­cent of Amer­ic­an adults still think “most people who want to get ahead can make it if they are will­ing to work hard,” down from 68 per­cent in 1994.

Op­tim­ism about Amer­ic­an op­por­tun­ity may fade fur­ther as mer­ito­cracy comes un­der pres­sure from two sides: a grow­ing eco­nom­ic di­vide between earned in­come and in­her­ited wealth; and a grow­ing so­cial di­vide, marked by dif­fer­ences in fam­ily struc­ture, edu­ca­tion, and com­munity.

Warn­ing: Wealth Gaps Ahead 

From the ban­ners of the short-lived Oc­cupy move­ment to the data tables of count­less eco­nom­ic stud­ies, the mes­sage is clear: Amer­ica’s rich are not just get­ting rich­er, they are get­ting much rich­er. This holds true for both in­come and — more troub­ling for op­por­tun­ity — wealth.

First, in­come: the gap between those at the very top and the rest is widen­ing. Not be­cause or­din­ary Amer­ic­ans are get­ting poorer — al­though some of the wilder rhet­or­ic on the polit­ic­al left would have us be­lieve so. But if gov­ern­ment taxes and pay­ments are taken in­to ac­count, in­comes have ac­tu­ally been rising at the bot­tom and in the middle of the U.S. in­come dis­tri­bu­tion — they’ve just been rising much more slowly than at the top, in stark con­trast to the “all-boats-rising” post­war years. Real in­comes for the top 1 per­cent of house­holds have tripled since 1979, com­pared to a rise of 50 per­cent for the bot­tom fifth and just 36 per­cent for those in the middle.

The United States is hardly alone in this re­spect. Sim­il­ar pat­terns can be seen in vir­tu­ally every ad­vanced eco­nomy. The U.S. non­ethe­less has high­er levels of in­come in­equal­ity than most com­par­able na­tions. Un­til re­cently, the gap between rich and poor has been widely ac­cep­ted on the grounds that it is bridge­able (“Ragged Dick did it, so can I”). But at a cer­tain point, the widen­ing in­come gap may in and of it­self make up­ward mo­bil­ity harder. As Isa­bel Sawhill sug­gests, it may simply be harder to climb a lad­der when the rungs are farther apart. It’s also true that money can be con­ver­ted in­to ex­per­i­ences and ad­vant­ages — like edu­ca­tion, med­ic­al care, a healthy diet, and the time and en­ergy that par­ents have to de­vote to their chil­dren — that fur­ther widen the mo­bil­ity gap between the haves and the have-nots.

+ (Cour­tesy Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion)

While in­come is the star of the in­equal­ity show, grabbing most of the at­ten­tion and head­lines, the gap that mat­ters even more for mo­bil­ity may turn out to be the one in wealth — and not just any wealth, but in­her­ited wealth. Wealth gaps are already very much high­er than in­come gaps. The top 1 per­cent takes twice as large a share of the na­tion­al wealth as of na­tion­al in­come. The danger is that these wealth gaps will get even lar­ger in the years ahead.

Enter, 180 years after Toc­queville, an­oth­er French­man to hold up a mir­ror to Amer­ica: Thomas Piketty. What he shows us in his widely ac­claimed Cap­it­al in the Twenty-First Cen­tury is not as flat­ter­ing as Demo­cracy in Amer­ica. The U.S. edi­tion of his book might as well be titled In­equal­ity in Amer­ica. Al­though the prob­lem Piketty de­scribes is glob­al, it is a par­tic­u­lar threat to Amer­ica’s egal­it­ari­an in­di­vidu­al­ist eth­os. Piketty is primar­ily con­cerned not with levels of in­equal­ity, but with “a rad­ic­ally new struc­ture of in­equal­ity,” one based on wealth from in­her­it­ance. If this is al­lowed to con­tin­ue, he says, the res­ult will be a “pat­ri­mo­ni­al so­ci­ety,” in which wealth is passed on in ways that per­petu­ate the status quo over mul­tiple gen­er­a­tions. In short, most of the rich will con­sist not of those who pulled them­selves up by their boot­straps but of those born in­to sky-high prosper­ity, who will have ad­vant­ages al­low­ing them to mul­tiply their wealth, which, when passed down to their chil­dren, will con­tin­ue to mul­tiply, and so on — and on, and on.

Mean­while, the bulk of the pop­u­la­tion, hav­ing little or no wealth, will have ever few­er chances to climb the lad­der. De­pend­ent on in­come, of­ten from jobs that are tran­si­ent, they are likely to spend most or all of what they earn, be­cause there’s not much of it to be­gin with and they need it to provide for day-to-day life. On best es­tim­ates, wages for full-time work­ers at the ex­act mid-point of the earn­ings dis­tri­bu­tion rose by around 9 per­cent between 1979 and 2007, just be­fore the Great Re­ces­sion hit. Not noth­ing; but not so good, either, giv­en that the eco­nomy as a whole doubled in size over the same peri­od. Partly this is be­cause those at the top are get­ting a big­ger slice of the wage pie; but it is also be­cause a lar­ger share of the na­tion’s eco­nom­ic out­put is go­ing to cap­it­al, rather than to wages, in the first place. In 2000, the share of na­tion­al in­come flow­ing to work­ers (to be pre­cise, “non­farm busi­ness in­come”) was 63 per­cent; as of last year, that fig­ure had fallen to 57 per­cent. That may not sound like a lot, but in his­tor­ic­al terms, it rep­res­ents a huge drop, equi­val­ent to around $750 bil­lion in “lost” wages. The two factors prop­ping up house­hold in­come for av­er­age Amer­ic­ans dur­ing these dec­ades of slow wage growth have been work­ing moth­ers, whose num­bers have ex­ploded, and help from Uncle Sam — yes, “Big Gov­ern­ment”! — in the shape of tax cred­its and tax cuts.

The eco­nomy is go­ing to grow, that’s cer­tain. Even the cau­tious Con­gres­sion­al Budget Of­fice thinks the U.S. eco­nomy will be a third big­ger by 2024. The ques­tion is how far that will trans­late in­to big­ger wage pack­ets — and for whom. “Eco­nom­ic growth,” writes lib­er­al eco­nom­ist Jared Bern­stein, “has be­come a spec­tat­or sport for too many poor and middle-class house­holds.”

Many na­tions are see­ing the con­nec­tion between growth and wages loosen, es­pe­cially for those around the middle of the in­come dis­tri­bu­tion. But it is par­tic­u­larly troub­ling here, be­cause the idea of work­ing for a liv­ing oc­cu­pies such a cent­ral place in the ideo­logy of Amer­ic­an­ism. Al­ger’s her­oes don’t win the lot­tery: they work. Moreover, if wealth in­equal­ity grows un­checked, as Piketty pre­dicts, and wages re­main re­l­at­ively stag­nant, it is hard to see how any­thing ap­proach­ing equal­ity of op­por­tun­ity can be achieved.

And there is a second ser­i­ous threat to mer­ito­cracy: the grow­ing class di­vi­sions that af­fect fam­ily, edu­ca­tion, and com­munity.

Class: The Great Di­vide

The Amer­ic­an ideal of equal­ity is based on the no­tion of equal mor­al worth, of an es­sen­tial same­ness among people (we are all semblables, in Toc­queville’s terms). The ideal re­tains some force, which is why as­pir­ing politi­cians are so of­ten ob­liged to ad­opt an “every­man” per­sona, stress­ing their sim­il­ar­ity to or­din­ary Amer­ic­ans in terms of leis­ure pur­suits, dress, and vocab­u­lary. It is of course an ex­er­cise in false nos­tal­gia to ima­gine that once upon a time every­body ate the same food, drank the same drinks, learned the same things in school, and raised their kids the same way. But dif­fer­ences seem great­er today, and not just in terms of how people make their liv­ing, but how they live.

There is now, for ex­ample, no such thing as “The Amer­ic­an Fam­ily.” The 1950s sit­com mod­el of fam­ily life, as em­bod­ied in Leave it to Beaver, was al­ways a semi-fic­tion; but it had a cul­tur­al pre-em­in­ence that has now been en­tirely lost, giv­ing way to a much more com­plic­ated kal­eido­scope of fam­ily struc­tures, in­clud­ing single par­ents, same-sex couples, child­less (or “child­free”) couples, and co­hab­it­at­ing par­ents. With these changes, par­tic­u­larly the in­crease in single par­ent­hood, has come a new prob­lem: pat­terns of fam­ily form­a­tion are di­ver­ging along the same lines as in­come and edu­ca­tion, ac­cen­tu­at­ing in­equal­ity of op­por­tun­ity. Isa­bel Sawhill has iden­ti­fied the source of the prob­lem, not­ing in her forth­com­ing book, Gen­er­a­tion Un­bound: Drift­ing in­to Sex and Par­ent­hood without Mar­riage, that “fam­ily form­a­tion is a new fault line in the Amer­ic­an class struc­ture.”

The pro­por­tion of chil­dren be­ing raised by a single par­ent has more than doubled in the last four dec­ades, and most of the growth rate is among those who are poorer and less edu­cated. Un­in­ten­ded preg­nancy rates are high. More par­ents have mul­tiple re­la­tion­ships while rais­ing their chil­dren, a trend the so­ci­olo­gist An­drew Cher­lin de­scribes as a “Mar­riage-go-Round.”

+ (Cour­tesy Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion)

These dif­fer­ences in fam­ily form­a­tion pat­terns are re­in­forced by “as­sort­at­ive mat­ing,” a stun­ningly un­ro­mantic term for the nat­ur­al tend­ency of people to form re­la­tion­ships and have chil­dren with people like them­selves. Col­lege grads marry col­lege grads — and now there are of course many more fe­male col­lege grads around to marry. On­line dat­ing has just ad­ded al­gorithms to the pro­cess.

All this mat­ters be­cause fam­ily struc­ture im­pacts on so­cial mo­bil­ity. Even the finest pub­lic school sys­tem in the world would be un­able to com­pensate chil­dren for what No­bel laur­eate James Heck­man calls the “biggest mar­ket fail­ure of all” — choos­ing the wrong par­ents. Par­ents with col­lege de­grees have few­er chil­dren, later in life, and after mar­riage. And they are high-in­vest­ment par­ents, spend­ing gen­er­ous amounts of time, en­ergy, and money on their off­spring. Class gaps in terms of par­ent­ing are not new, of course, but they are widen­ing. In the 1970s, there were no ser­i­ous dif­fer­ences in the amount of time spent with chil­dren by par­ents of dif­fer­ing edu­ca­tion levels. Now there are sig­ni­fic­ant dis­par­it­ies, which have come to be widely re­cog­nized thanks in large meas­ure to the work of Robert Put­nam (of Bowl­ing Alone fame). There is also a gap in terms of how this time is spent — and it turns out that “qual­ity” of time mat­ters as well as quant­ity. Con­ver­sa­tion is one ex­ample: chil­dren in the poorest fam­il­ies hear, on av­er­age, only 600 words per hour; those from the most af­flu­ent and highly edu­cated fam­il­ies hear over 2,000 words per hour. By the age of 4, the total gap in words heard is es­tim­ated to be 30 mil­lion.

Bill Clin­ton fre­quently poin­ted out that par­ents raise chil­dren, not gov­ern­ments. But giv­en that, as his wife Hil­lary Clin­ton cor­rectly ad­ded, “it takes a vil­lage,” one might reas­on­ably hope that once chil­dren enter school they will find something ap­prox­im­at­ing a level play­ing field. This cer­tainly looks to be a shared polit­ic­al goal. As George W. Bush, Pres­id­ent Clin­ton’s suc­cessor, said in 2001, when launch­ing the edu­ca­tion re­form ini­ti­at­ive, No Child Left Be­hind: Amer­ica’s “greatest chal­lenge” (this was be­fore 9/11) was to en­sure that “every single child, re­gard­less of where they live, how they’re raised, the in­come level of their fam­ily” would get a “a first-class edu­ca­tion.”

+ (Cour­tesy Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion)

But after dec­ades of rhet­or­ic and re­form, the Amer­ic­an edu­ca­tion sys­tem is fail­ing as an en­gine of so­cial mo­bil­ity. The poorest chil­dren (black and white alike) re­ceive the worst pub­lic edu­ca­tion. Achieve­ment gaps between poor and af­flu­ent chil­dren tend to widen, rather than nar­row, dur­ing the K-12 years.

Bey­ond the front porch and the school gates lies the com­munity, which can also make or break life chances. The “so­cial cap­it­al” gen­er­ated by the net­works and norms of com­munity life can be cru­cial for up­ward mo­bil­ity, es­pe­cially for those from troubled homes: the coach who builds con­fid­ence, the neigh­bor who helps with a col­lege ap­plic­a­tion, the preach­er who hears about a job open­ing, the fam­ily friend who keeps a strug­gling stu­dent from fall­ing be­hind. But here, too, the gaps are widen­ing. Com­munity act­iv­ism — vo­lun­teer­ing, sports, neigh­bor sup­port net­works, church-go­ing, and so on — is weak, and prob­ably weak­en­ing, in less af­flu­ent neigh­bor­hoods.

These dis­ad­vant­ages typ­ic­ally com­pound each oth­er, with low-in­come house­holds, un­stable fam­il­ies, and strug­gling par­ents liv­ing in the most hol­lowed-out com­munit­ies, con­tain­ing the worst schools, with the few­est so­cial and in­sti­tu­tion­al sup­ports for those in need. So the bar­ri­ers to up­ward mo­bil­ity get even high­er, along with the risks of get­ting stuck at the bot­tom of the lad­der.

—-

At a time when the United States is fall­ing so far short of its own egal­it­ari­an ideal of Al­ger-style mer­ito­cracy, cur­rent eco­nom­ic and so­cial trends are likely to make things worse. Piketty’s pre­dic­tions, like all pre­dic­tions, are far from proven; in­deed, there are ser­i­ous doubts about some of his as­sump­tions. But if he turns out to be even frac­tion­ally right, we are in trouble. So, what is to be done? It hardly needs say­ing that there is no quick and easy fix. But there is also no ex­cuse for sit­ting on our hands while the idea of op­por­tun­ity be­comes close to a cruel joke for so many. Op­por­tun­ity is a pub­lic good, as well as a private one.

The good news is that U.S. politi­cians are wak­ing up to the dangers of a di­vided na­tion. The bad news is that there is al­most no con­sensus on which di­vides mat­ter. Demo­crats em­phas­ize in­equal­it­ies in ma­ter­i­al di­men­sions, es­pe­cially money; Re­pub­lic­ans fo­cus on class gaps in fam­ily, school­ing, and com­munity. Of course both are right. Cash gaps and class gaps both mat­ter, and any polit­ic­al agenda that ad­dresses only one side of the equal­ity equa­tion is destined to fail.

If we start with the money gap, Piketty’s pro­posed rem­edy, lo­gic­ally enough, is to levy heav­ier taxes on cap­it­al gains and wealth. This has been dis­missed as a uto­pi­an, even un-Amer­ic­an idea. Even now, when the de­sire to tax the rich could be ex­pec­ted to be at its zenith, Amer­ic­ans re­main un­enthu­si­ast­ic re­dis­trib­ut­ors. In­deed, an aver­sion to tax­ing in­her­it­ance is one of the few is­sues on which there is fre­quent bi­par­tis­an agree­ment. To Obama’s cred­it, he has tried to re­verse the tide. To no avail. Even blue states like Mary­land are rein­ing back their es­tate taxes.

But this could change. There is ac­tu­ally a fairly deep anti-wealth seam in the Amer­ic­an ideo­logy of egal­it­ari­an in­di­vidu­al­ism, as Piketty him­self notes. Jef­fer­son and Thomas Paine favored high taxes on es­tates to pre­vent the re-cre­ation of an ar­is­to­cracy. Even An­drew Carne­gie, who loathed taxes in gen­er­al, was a fan of the ones on in­her­it­ance: “I say the com­munity fails in its duty, and our le­gis­lat­ors fail in their duty, if they do not ex­act a tre­mend­ous share”¦” of the “enorm­ous sum” be­queathed by the wealthy to their heirs. To this day, many wealthy Amer­ic­ans — War­ren Buf­fett per­haps the most prom­in­ent and out­spoken among them — con­tin­ue to speak up against the un­fair­ness of the tax sys­tem, and some, like Buf­fet and Bill Gates, have pledged to give away much of their for­tunes rather than pass it on to their chil­dren.

Wealth in­equal­ity is a dir­ect threat to a so­ci­ety that as­pires to be ordered by mer­it and marked by so­cial mo­bil­ity. So pro­pos­als to tax the wealthy and use the rev­en­ues to fund op­por­tun­ity-en­han­cing strategies are far from “un-Amer­ic­an.” They are, in fact, quint­es­sen­tially Amer­ic­an. If the es­tate tax were re­turned to the level of the Pres­id­ent George H.W. Bush years, for ex­ample, it would raise an ad­di­tion­al $300 bil­lion to $400 bil­lion over the next dec­ade — twice as much as we need to fund uni­ver­sal pre-K.

There is a long way to go to per­suade the Amer­ic­an pub­lic of this, of course, but it is con­ceiv­able that with the right pub­lic fram­ing, and con­sist­ent polit­ic­al pres­sure, opin­ion on wealth taxes could shift. The new in­vest­ment in­come tax on couples with joint in­comes of over $250,000 to fund Obama’s Af­ford­able Care Act provides a glim­mer of hope that cap­it­al gains taxes are not com­pletely off the table.

The so­cial di­vide must also be ad­dressed — with money, more cre­at­ive think­ing about how to help people ac­quire the skills they need, and in­sti­tu­tion­al and fin­an­cial sup­port for those fall­ing be­hind. Tack­ling the par­ent­ing gap, for ex­ample by ex­pand­ing home vis­it­ing pro­grams, ought to be a bi­par­tis­an cause. Like­wise, ac­tion to even up qual­ity in K-12 schools, with a con­cer­ted at­tack on “ex­clu­sion­ary zon­ing laws” that se­cure the bor­ders of school catch­ment areas for the be­ne­fit of the af­flu­ent, more choice in schools for chil­dren of the low­est-in­come par­ents, and big fin­an­cial in­cent­ives to at­tract the best teach­ers to the toughest schools.

Re­viv­ing the Amer­ic­an Dream 

On the polit­ic­al left, there are plenty of people who think it is time to con­sign Hor­a­tio Al­ger to the dust­bin of his­tory. For them, the Al­ger myth is little more than a cul­tur­al con­jur­ing trick, provid­ing an il­lu­sion of op­por­tun­ity to dis­tract the masses from gross in­equal­it­ies of in­come and wealth. It can also act as a con­veni­ent un­truth for the elite, who can rest as­sured of their in­trins­ic su­peri­or­ity: “Born on third base “¦ think­ing they hit a triple,” in foot­ball coach Barry Switzer’s vivid phrase.

But abandon­ing Al­ger — giv­ing up on the Amer­ic­an Dream — is not an op­tion. While Bel­lamy and Piketty provide rich seams of ideas to mine, there is no pro­spect of a Euro-egal­it­ari­an turn in Amer­ic­an polit­ics. The Amer­ic­an body polit­ic would simply re­ject a graft of European-style so­cial demo­cracy. It’s point­less for pro­gress­ives to get frus­trated about this. At­tach­ment to the ideal of equal op­por­tun­ity is not a blind spot in the vis­ion of voters. Amer­ic­ans do have strong egal­it­ari­an in­stincts, but they go hand-in-hand with a fierce com­mit­ment to in­di­vidu­al­ism. The ideal of mer­it-fueled mo­bil­ity is a fixed fea­ture of Amer­ic­an polit­ics and ideo­logy. It comes, al­most lit­er­ally, with the ter­rit­ory. Even if it were pos­sible to re­tire the Al­ger myth, it would be a mis­take. The na­tion­al com­mit­ment to the prin­ciples of nat­ur­al equal­ity, op­por­tun­ity, and up­ward mo­bil­ity is an Amer­ic­an strength. Only a polit­ics that goes with this Amer­ic­an grain stands any chance of cre­at­ing a more equal na­tion.

On that spring even­ing in the na­tion’s cap­it­al, the crowd had gathered not to bury Al­ger, but to praise him. It is now time to pay him more than lip ser­vice. Equal op­por­tun­ity must and will re­main the quint­es­sen­tial Amer­ic­an ideal. The chal­lenge is to live up to it.

Find more in­form­a­tion at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion

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