Climbing economic ladder in America is deteriorating into an impossible dream


Elisabeth Reichert

Professor of Social Work


The common American belief that one individual can improve his or her economic status is deteriorating into the impossible dream.

A recent article in The New York Times discussed how Americans now enjoy less economic mobility than peers in Canada and much of Western Europe.

The Times article provided many points of view as to why moving up the economic ladder within the U.S. has become more difficult to achieve than in other countries with similar cultures and levels of economic development. However, two factors shaping U.S. society stood out: an inferior social net at the bottom economic ranks and higher cost of education, particularly university education.

Coming from Germany, a country that spends much more of its income on social services than the U.S., I do notice stark differences in the lower economic rungs of society between our countries.

While overall poverty rates may not differ too much within Germany and the U.S., the extremes of poverty are striking. In Germany, most everyone has access to health care, shelter and other basic needs without a negative reference to “welfare.” In the U.S., politicians often degrade programs that meet basic needs, like those that provide food assistance.

From my perspective as a social worker, I believe that the failure of the U.S. to recognize the importance of economic and social human rights has played a major role in its continually low quality of life rankings when compared to other economically developed countries.

In one 2011 survey using social welfare standards like level of crime, access to health care, quality of education and community facilities, the top ranked U.S. city was Honolulu at number 29. San Francisco was 30, with Chicago coming in at 43. Many West European, Australian and Asian cities ranked higher than U.S. cities in quality of life.

As subjective as quality of life rankings and poverty statistics might be, the U.S. can still gain insight into how it is doing in a number of areas by reference to that information. While the U.S. has much to offer in terms of employment and standard of living, not all residents benefit from what this country could offer.

There should not be any stigma attached to receiving assistance for food, shelter, health care or other basic needs when the necessity for that assistance is valid, which is usually the case. I do not believe there is a class war going on in this country, but there is certainly a need to recognize that government assistance in meeting basic economic and social human rights should be an essential part of what government does.

Not everyone can or will become wealthy if that is the definition of the American dream. But certainly everyone should have a legitimate expectation of adequate health care, food, shelter and education. Anything less will ensure that the U.S. will continue to perform poorly in the economic mobility challenge.