Getting a college degree helps children of low-income parents gain ground, but it is far harder for low-income and middle-income offspring to move up the economic ladder now than in the decades after World War II. The hope that increased opportunity can offset the effects of greater inequality is, unfortunately, not supported by the facts. For more than two centuries, economic opportunity and the prospect of upward mobility have formed the bedrock upon which the American Dream has been anchored. Indeed, a desire to escape from the constraints of more class-based societies was the driving force luring many of our ancestors to this New World, and millions of immigrants continue to flood our borders in search of the American Dream. Americans continue to believe that all one needs to get ahead is individual effort, intelligence, and skills: coming from a wealthy family is far from a necessity to achieve success in America.

Many Americans are even unconcerned about the historically high degree of economic inequality that exists in the United States today perhaps because they believe that big income gaps between the rich and the poor and, increasingly, between the rich and the middle class, are offset by a high degree of economic mobility. Economic inequality, in this view, is a fact of life and not all that disturbing as long as there is constant movement out of the bottom and a fair shot at making it to the top. In short, much of what the public believes about the fairness of the American economy is dependent on the generally accepted notion that there is a high degree of social and economic mobility.

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