Timothy Noah on America's income immobility

MATTHIEU_SPOHN/PhotoAlto via AP Images

(CBS News) Americans have always believed that their children will have it better than they do. But now that's in doubt, according to our Contributor and New Republic editor Timothy Noah, whose latest book is titled "The Great Divergence":

Americans know their country has a lot of economic inequality. But they tell themselves that's OK. It's OK because America offers a wealth of opportunity to those at the bottom. We're unique that way.

The only problem is, it isn't true.

President Obama said so in the recent election: "The rungs on the ladder of opportunity have grown farther and farther apart."

Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan said so, too: "Right now, America's engines of upward mobility aren't working the way they should."

Our self-image as the land of opportunity comes mainly from two writers: One was Horatio Alger, who wrote dime novels about plucky street urchins getting ahead. The other was James Truslaw Adams, an historian who coined the phrase "the American Dream."

Alger and Adams were not up-from-the-bottom types themselves; they were born into prosperous families and received good educations. But they lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the time of America's rapid industrialization, and both saw that this young country offered many more opportunities for advancement than class-bound Europe.

Today we've got nothing like that kind of mobility.

The last time U.S. mobility was actually growing was the post-World War II era. Even then, the growth wasn't as rapid as in Alger's and Adams' time. Today, many researchers believe, we have less mobility than we did as recently as the 1970s.

Meanwhile, Europe started beating us at our own game. One recent study ranked U.S. mobility below Germany, France, Spain, even Canada. Another found that American men were more likely to inherit their parents' economic status than they were to inherit their parents' height and weight.

What happened? Economists aren't sure. But it's been noted that countries where incomes are notably unequal -- as they are in the U.S. -- tend to experience notably less mobility.

When those rungs get further apart, the ladder gets harder to climb. So even if you don't care about inequality, you may have to, if you care about opportunity.

For more info: