What happened to the American Dream?

Baltimore’s native son Wes Moore typifies the American Dream. Though his father died when he was very young and he was raised without much money, he managed to break through to another level. He served his country honorably in the U.S. Army, became a White House fellow, wrote a best-selling book, and is now giving back to his community through Robin Hood, an organization devoted to fighting poverty by providing support to certain non-profits.

In today’s America, however, stories like his are vanishingly rare. Social mobility — the idea that you can erase class lines, move up in the world, do better than your parents did — has all but disappeared. Inequality has reached historic proportions.

At this point, when we tell our kids that they can grow up to be anything, we’re just lying to them. That this is what America has become is, well, un-American.

America grew as a nation where, if you can prove it, you can make it. That is what made America strong and provided a good life for hundreds of millions of people. Recreating that America must be the next great national effort. It must be our generation’s civil rights movement, our generation’s equivalent of fighting and winning World War II.

While we don’t talk about the lack of social mobility much — precisely because rigid classes seem so un-American — the problem is acute. Only 6 percent of people born in the bottom 20 percent of household incomes will make it to the top 20 percent of household incomes. This collapse of social mobility doesn’t just affect those born into poverty. Those born squarely in the middle of the household income scale have a 20 percent lower chance of moving to the high end of the income scale than they did 30 years ago.

All told, we now have a system where you are literally more likely to “inherit” your income — to earn an income similar to that of your parents — than you are to inherit your height or your weight.

The stagnation of social mobility has a profound effect on all aspects of American life.

It exacerbates inequality: Of all the pretax income growth in America between 1979 and 2013, over 57 percent of the gains went to just 20 percent of households.

It exacerbates social issues: People born outside the top 20 percent have much worse outcomes in overall health, life expectancy, educational attainment, happiness and a host of other measures.

It exacerbates racial disparities: African Americans are among the groups most likely to be trapped in the low end of the economic spectrum.

This is unacceptable for the richest country on earth based on gross domestic product, particularly because we know how to foster social mobility. Across many countries comparable to America, universal pre-K has been proven to increase social mobility. That we don’t have it here is a sin. Mixing kids from different socio-economic backgrounds in schools has also been proven to help the educational attainment of low-income kids without affecting schools’ overall performances. Programs like home visits for young, low-income new parents are very effective, as is paying excellent teachers more to teach in lower-performing schools. Books like Richard Reeves’ “Dream Hoarders” provide a host of solutions.

Bringing back opportunity — restoring the American Dream — should be something we can all get behind. Who wouldn’t want to build an America where hard work pays off? Who wouldn’t want to build an America where everyone has a real opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their families, even if they’re born poor? Who wouldn’t want to build an America where poor people have a fair shake?

Now we just need to do it. Politicians — like those running for office this November here in Maryland — need to listen up. America must be a nation that fosters the next generation of Wes Moores, not one where their ladder of opportunity is nothing more than broken rungs.

Neal Urwitz (nurwitz@gmail.com) is a public relations executive.

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