“Because differences in income in the US are believed to be related to skill and effort, and because social mobility is assumed to be high,” said Isabel Sawhill, codirector of the Centre on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution in September, “inequality seems to be more acceptable than in Europe.”
However, the recent downturn has delivered a severe dent to American’s self-image. A report earlier this year showed that between 2007 and 2010 the median US family lost a generation of wealth. Most Americans believe it unlikely that young people will have a better life than their parents — the highest number on record.
Meanwhile, as the National Journal’s Ron Brownstein made clear recently, the sclerotic effects of class entrenchment are becoming ever more deeply embedded. In a study titled Pathways to the middle class Sawhill and two colleagues pointed out that nearly two-thirds of children born to parents in the bottom fifth of income stay in that category as adults, while more than three-fifths of children born into families in the top fifth remain in theirs.
However, despite that, it seems belief in the American dream remains steadfast. Eighty-five percent of Americans still believe theirs is the land of opportunity, while other polls over the last four years reveal a sizeable majority of Americans still believe “the American Dream is still possible and achievable for people like you.”
When Mark Weaver reflects on the last few years he falls back on his faith.
“This experience has definitely made me more humble. I think God’s made me more authentically who I am,” he says.
Having moved into a smaller home with her teenage son, Michelle now wonders why she surrounded herself with so many things she did not need.
“When I was working, if I saw something I wanted I would buy it. Now I wonder if I really need it. When I see people in Target getting all these things for Halloween I think: What are you going to do with all that stuff? Where are you going to put it? I still feel the American dream is available to me. I’m not prepared to let that go yet,” she says. “But I no longer think it’s about being a consumer.”