THE BLOG
01/19/2012 06:54 pm ET Updated Mar 20, 2012

Horatio Alger Debunked

America is losing its social mobility. What makes this particularly dangerous is that it represents a shift from historical patterns, and particularly attacks the bulk of the country, the middle and working class, in unprecedented fashion.

Since the late nineteenth century, the model has been the Horatio Alger stories. In pamphlets with wonderfully alliterative titles, the hero (Determined Dick, Terrific Tom, etc.) starts out poor, and through smarts, Puritan work ethic, and improbable good luck, winds up in the ranks of the wealthy.

While this really did happen to a few famous individuals like Andrew Carnegie, the scenario was actually unlikely. A number of historical studies have shown that the ranks of the upper middle class to rich -- those who benefitted from the booming economy of the Gilded Age -- were drawn from members of their own class, and their own ethnic group. The odds on a worker or farmer or an immigrant breaking in were slim indeed.

There are several other problems, however, with using Alger's characters as the archetypes. While rags-to-riches was rare, another kind of social mobility did occur. Millions of Americans made it from the working class to the middle stratum, even if it was to the lower reaches. That is the true American success story, the result of free public education, equitable tax rates to fund public efforts, unions, and reform laws such as those that protected workers' health and prevented an injured bread winner from plummeting the family back into poverty.

Let us not be naive about history. If this shift happened, it came at exceptionally high cost. The casualty rate along the way, of laborers dead and maimed in the mills, was higher than that of any external war this country has fought. It required enormous sacrifice, and gut wrenching hunger, often of parents who went without so offspring could rise a wrung on the ladder. As that implies, mobility often took more than one generation. Note that there was also plenty of downward mobility -- something never touched on in all the accounts of our miracle -- as large numbers fell farther and farther behind thanks to layoffs, injuries, and other setbacks that were devastating, yet rarely the fault of the worker.

The fact remains, though, that these advances did happen for large numbers, that no matter the setbacks, social mobility was achieved at the mid levels to a remarkable extent. This stands in stark contrast to the history of Great Britain and European nations in this same period, which remained class-locked societies.

The critical issue, therefore, is not the number of Americans ascending to the ranks of the rare few. Instead, the true test is what is happening to the real American success story, the historical pattern of mobility within the lower and middle classes.

Yet, the results do not speak to continued American triumph. One recent study concluded that 42 percent of American males from the bottom fifth stay there; the figure for Great Britain is only 30%. According to Pew investigations, of classic middle class Americans -- those in the middle fifth income bracket -- 36% moved up, 23% had no mobility, while 41% lost standing and had their economic condition decline.

As we lose one of the most fundamental elements of our earlier greatness, elites protest any effort to tax at higher rates, while both kindergartens and distinguished universities strangle from lack of funds. Both unions and health codes are under attack. It is time to take a conservative step, to restore the kind of mobility ladder that worked so well for this country in the past.