Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Climbing the Ladder?

One of the common Aussie attitudes is that with enough hard work, you can do anything. From the outback to the pub to the office, the saying goes that anyone is capable of making it in the "lucky country" if they put their nose to the grindstone. It's quite similar to the notion of the American Dream which has encouraged the world (at least in years past) to consider America as the "Promised Land" where anything is possible.

With this concept impressed somewhere in my personality, I found a very interesting article which suggests that having such an attitude in present-day America may be nothing more than a comfortable urban legend. Scary thing is - I can see it applying equally well to Australia.
[...] The myth, or belief, that people are solely what they make of themselves is useful to keep in mind while reading two ongoing series: the New York Times' on class and the Wall Street Journal's on social mobility. Both focus attention on a truth about American society that runs counter to most people's deep-seated beliefs: There is less social mobility in the United States now than in the '80s (and less then than in the '70s) and less mobility than in many other industrial countries, including Canada, Finland, Sweden and Germany. Yet 40 percent of respondents to a Times poll said that there was a greater chance to move up from one class to another now than 30 years ago, and 46 percent said it was easier to do so in the United States than in Europe.

Although the news about social mobility has not been widely reported, it is generally recognized that inequality has grown over the past thirty years. The Times series highlights how much the super-rich have made out like, well, bandits. While the real income of the bottom 90 percent of Americans fell from 1980 to 2002, the income of the top 0.1 percent--making $1.6 million or more--went up two and a half times in real terms before taxes. With the help of the Bush tax cuts, the gap between the super-rich and everyone else grew even larger.

The American people accept this, it is argued, because they think not only that there's more social mobility than there is, but also that they'll personally get rich. Indeed, a poll in 2000 indicated that 39 percent of Americans thought they were either in the wealthiest one percent or would be "soon." The Times poll was slightly less exuberant: 11 percent thought it was very likely they would become wealthy, another 34 percent somewhat likely.
This seems to highlight the gap between belief and reality, doesn't it? It would be interesting to know similar statistics for Australia; perhaps they will be available soon once the University of Queensland's study on Neoliberalism, Inequality and Politics is completed. I'm guessing that it will only reinforce the observations stated in the article above.

It is certainly a romantic notion that "anyone can make it if they try hard enough", but when one observes the state of many third world nations it seems a bit juvenile to suggest that every impoverished farmer could one day be taking an annual skiing holiday in the Swiss Alps via their Lear Jet.


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