Inequality, Life Chances, Upward Mobility, & the American Dream

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Inequality, Life Chances, Upward Mobility, & the American Dream

A Job That Pays the Bills

Like other fairy tales, the American Dream becomes part of our thinking and goals for life and work. We teach our children this idea, sometimes even when we don't believe it ourselves. What do you say to the child who says she will be a movie or rock star?

Well, you'll have to work hard but anything is possible!

A cruelness arises in the truth for Americans discussing life choices and opportunities, and understandably, we often resort to fairy tales because there appears to be no means of relating reality without crushing a child's hope. Worse than those telling the tall tale of affluence and dream-making are those who preach this farfetchedness with faith. At least the empathetic white liars have hope of eventually breaking the bad news to children but those who believe the lie condemn themselves and their children to a life of work with little chance of achieving a modicum of the American dream. The answer is not the get-rich-quick scheme and instead forms when you understand this fairy tale and how it morphs from fortune to a job to pay the bills.

  • Inequality: Some people or groups have more or less chances and benefits than others, based on things that are not fair or equal. These things can include power, religion, family, respect, race, culture, gender, age, who they love, and what class they belong to.
  • Life Chances: The likelihood someone has a good life, based on different factors a variety factors such as race, culture, gender, etc.
  • Upward Mobility: One's ability to move up in society or the economy, by getting a better job, education, income, or status.
  • The American Dream: The belief that democracy, rights, freedom, and fairness provide opportunities and ensure that everyone has a chance to be rich, successful, and improve their situation by working hard. ~ Microsoft Bing. (2023). Chat mode [Chatbot].
  • The Interrelatedness of These Concepts

    In the United States, the American Dream is a core ideal often preached and believed by many. American culture promotes the American Dream which dictates that as long as one works hard the opportunity exists for prosperity and success. The American Dream also asserts that upward social and financial mobility is possible regardless of social class or circumstances of birth. This thought promotes the image of a society in which inequalities do not exist and gives little credence to the fact that inequalities are real problems, prohibiting upward mobility.

    Most people are not so naive as to believe there are no inequalities but even those who do not believe that the American Dream is always or even rarely possible often still think this idea is worth striving for or that enough social mobility exists to allow one upward movement with hard work. Upward mobility rarely happens because life chances or opportunities differ in availability for socioeconomic groups according to their access to resources. For example, if you are poor you have less access to loans for building a business than a rich person. Despite obvious inequality, Americans persist in believing or at least acting in accordance with this fairy tale because the truth is so masked in propaganda and lies that it appears counterintuitive.

    The only rich people who believe in the American dream are those too stupid to understand they lucked into it. The smart rich people understand perfectly, they have everything to gain from your loss in believing in the American Dream.

    To understand that there is little upward mobility and little chance of achieving the American Dream, one needs only look at the facts, which clearly shows

    ...that as of Q4 2021, the top 1% of households in the United States held 32.3% of the country's wealth, while the bottom 50% held 2.6%.


    The Americans persist with this dream because it is fundamentally tied to the country's dominant religion (Christianity) and the broad culture of the US, such that when one questions the American Dream they are often at a loss to replace the idea of hard work resulting in success. The truth, that hard work often does not yield success, becomes counterintuitive.

    As mentioned, the American Dream wraps in politics, religion, but also in career advice, such that hard work becomes the only visible means to success, and if you don't believe in this path (hard work), you are doomed to failure. Instead of a function of equality, the American Dream is revealed as an appeal to ignorance in which you are told to work hard and to become successful, but if you do not acquire success, it is because you did not work hard enough.

    Understandably, this dream persists today because it is embedded in the culture and even more importantly, because the capitalist structure in America makes this dream a reality to some degree. Whether you become rich or not, doesn't change the fact that you will need to work unless born into wealth or find affluence in some other way. As such, hard work appears sensible and smart for those who desire to achieve wealth, thus seeming to provide evidence for the American Dream.

    The Magical Thinking of Upward Mobility

    Life Chances

    Claims that the American Dream is a reality, usually cite instances of when immigrants first came to the United States and became successful. The truth is that only immigrants who possess valuable skills or have money to start enterprises become successful which has little to do with hard work. Cases are often cited of poor people becoming successful in order to claim the American Dream is real, when these cases are actually outliers and only happen in unique circumstances. The reason that the American Dream is still relevant is due to privileged groups reinforcing their economic position and not taking responsibility for socio-economic systems that benefit them the most while keeping the majority in their birth class.

    There is a dilemma in capitalist society. In order to maintain wealth and scarce goods, those in control of those goods must keep others from taking their goods. In order to maintain this control the higher classes create or promote ideologies, like the American Dream, which promote hard work amongst the lower classes. This classic carrot and stick promises reward for effort, but in reality, workers make someone else rich or the rich richer. Capitalism, by nature, creates economic value by creating scarcity, even where there is none.

    Upward mobility becomes more about luck and timing and less about hard work. While hard work might seem to pay off in money earned, only those with the highest-paying jobs can accrue enough to make the investments necessary to achieve independent wealth.

    People at the top, who hold most of the wealth, whether they realize it or not, have everything to gain by your willingness to work hard since they control the resources you work to gain a sliver of for yourself. The American Dream becomes a means of oppression and an appeal to ignorance used to blame underprivileged groups rather than the grotesque economic and social systems keeping wealth at the top.

    Americans are taught that India is still a caste-bound system and born a beggar most likely means staying a beggar for life. These stories justify our magical thinking in the American Dream and we pursue that fairytale more often to find ourselves just as poor at the end of life as at the beginning. Perhaps the beggar, if that story is true, has it better since he can maximize his begging potential without the delusion of entering a higher station in life.

    The Solution No One Wants to Hear

    From an individual standpoint, no one size fits all solution solves inequality, poor life chances, and lack of upward mobility and sadly much of the advice is less than novel for being mostly ineffective.

    • Go back to school or earn new certifications. One of the most effective ways to increase your earning potential is to invest in your education and skills. While getting a diploma or degree can help you earn more it is often costly and leaves many people paying off student loans.
    • Attend professional development opportunities. Sure, developing yourself professionally can help you get ahead at your job but what is the cost of these development opportunities and what is there long term value? Even if they help you earn more, you still are a long way from actualizing the American Dream.
    • Network. Perhaps one of the most effective ways to get ahead is to network since networking helps gain access to valuable information, resources, and opportunities that could increase your earning potential. This certainly seems to work for CEOs who are rarely worth their salary.
    • Find a mentor, develop good time management skills, negotiate your salary, the list goes on...

    All these solutions form half or less measures because they do not actually solve the problems. At the end of the day, no matter what you do you are still black or muslim, you are still poor or trying to overcome poverty from a position of lack of opportunity, and ultimately upward mobility is limited no matter what you do. Most people, no matter how hard they work will never achieve affluence, fame, or some other fortune because in a capitalist system, there is only room for a small number at the top.

    If you want to make money and actualize the American Dream, you need to take all that mundane career advice, work really hard, and, most importantly, hope good luck comes your way.

    The better answer is to start looking at these problems and question why and how we built a society rigged with inequality, poor life chances, and an impossible-to-achieve dream.

    We will only solve the problem if start viewing it as a problem.

    Just Weighing Separator

    Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash

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