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.
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 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.