Nice Places Finish First

John M. Bridgeland and Alan Khazei | Washington Monthly | November 1, 2013

The economic returns of civic virtue.

The American Dream is a core part of our national ethos. It is the idea that anyone can advance up the economic ladder with hard work and determination, regardless of where they come from or what zip code they’re born into.

Over the last few years, however, the American Dream has taken a beating, and not just because of the Great Recession. A number of careful studies have found that there is less upward mobility in America than in other wealthy countries, such as Germany, Demark, Sweden, and the UK. In fact, only 8 percent of Americans born in the lowest fifth of the income scale ever make it to the top fifth in our so-called classless society, while the percentage is 11 to 14 percent in these “Old European” countries.

These new revelations would have shocked Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat who traveled through the United States in the 1830s and was among the first to write about the restive, egalitarian scramble for material success that then characterized America, so different from the class-bound Europe of his day.