More Go From Rags to Riches - And Reverse - as Class Barriers Fall

Success - or failure - in life no longer depends so much on the status, education, and occupation of Mom and Dad.

Class is declining in importance in the United States.

Family position on the US economic ladder is being increasingly affected by a number of other factors. They include whether the family has two incomes, the amount of higher education earners receive, and a strong economy.

This doesn't mean that the playing field of life has become completely level in the US. It's still easier to reach the executive level if your childhood playground was a country club instead of poverty-stricken streets.

It's just that there is more social and economic mobility in the US than ever before, according to some experts.

"Inherited advantages of class play a smaller role than they used to in shaping the success of individual Americans," conclude economic researchers Daniel McMurrer and Isabel Sawhill in a report for the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank.

"Opportunity has increased."

Classless society

Many Americans think of themselves as living in a classless society where there is equal opportunity for all. It's European societies where class is a rigid economic barrier, in US mythology.

But that's not true, according to sociologists and economists. Family background is very important in the US. Furthermore, intergenerational class mobility in the European industrial nations - such as Britain, Germany, and France - is about the same as in the New World.

"Life is organized a bit differently in [Europe]," says Robert Hauser, a professor at the University of Wisconsin's Center for Demography. But it is "a bit of folklore" that European class structure prevents children from moving up or down the class ladder.

Against this background, the latest research shows that individuals in the US are becoming freer to advance from their roots.

"There is more social mobility, more people moving up, more people going to university, than ever before," says Seymour Martin Lipset of George Mason University, Fairfax, Va.

US millionaires today, for instance, are far more likely to have earned their pile than to be drawing on ancestral trust funds. Some 3.5 million households in the US now have wealth exceeding $1 million, according to Thomas Stanley and William Danko, writing in their book, "The Millionaire Next Door."

Yet fewer than 20 percent of surveyed millionaires inherited more than one-tenth of their wealth, they found. More than half never got $1 of inheritance.

One factor that has enabled many families to improve their status - though not necessarily to the millionaire class - has been the entry of more women into the paid labor force. A double income enables these families to buy more goods and services.

Another factor pushing people up the ladder has been economic growth. As rising productivity boosts wage levels, the majority of children enjoy better living standards than their parents did.

A third reason for the system becoming fairer is that more and more Americans are getting higher education. The percentage of adults who are college graduates has increased from 8 percent in 1960 to 23 percent in 1995.

"Education is the most effective way of breaking the links between generations," says the Urban Institute's Mr. McMurrer. Even if parents have little education and live in poverty, their children almost certainly will advance if given a college education.

The flipside

The news on US class barriers isn't all good. In recent decades economic growth has been slower and, thus, a less reliable class-busting force. And the ability to rise in life goes hand-in-hand with increased opportunity to slip down.

In the early 1970s, 13 percent of US adults were downwardly mobile - they lived in a lower class than their parents, according to Michael Hout, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Today that figure has increased to 23 percent.

And while the situation of black families has improved in recent decades, with one-third now judged middle-class, several trends could lessen opportunity for minorities.

"Rising college tuitions coupled with the retreat from affirmative action could well take away the college opportunities that have the played [a] large role in [black] mobility," says Mr. Hout.

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