Core to our national consciousness is the idea that Americans’ economic, educational, and personal advancement should depend on their effort and ability, rather than on their circumstances at birth. Where we start out in society should not predetermine where we end up, nor should the country maintain rigid caste lines or perpetuate a privileged class. Americans rightly see economic and social mobility as central to opportunity and vital to achieving the American Dream. And their belief in a fair chance at mobility for themselves and their families helps to power their optimism, productivity, and perseverance in tough times as well as prosperous ones.
Because we believe that class distinctions should be surmountable through effort and determination, and that Americans’ human potential is vast, we expect that our nation’s social categories will be fluid and unpredictable, that many people will move up or down the socioeconomic scale over their lifetime, and that families will change their status over generations. We expect, moreover, that, taken as a whole, our national mobility will be primarily upward, toward greater economic success and human achievement over time.
The U.S. Constitution reflects this commitment to mobility over caste in its prohibition of titles of nobility or “corruption of blood,” and in its systematic move away from slavery, patriarchy, and the privileges of a landed gentry and toward the guarantees of equal protection of the laws, universal suffrage, and equal privileges and immunities for all Americans. Mobility nurtures in our people a deep belief in the limitless potential of themselves and their fellow Americans—as Alexis de Tocqueville put it in his 1835 writing Democracy in America, “Equality suggests to the Americans the idea of the indefinite perfectibility of man.” The experience of the frontier, migration and immigration, the Great Depression, and the post-war rise of the middle class served to galvanize this ideal in our national psyche.
These values are also reflected in our human rights laws. For example, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination condemns the practices of colonialism, segregation, and apartheid that enforce caste systems and squelch mobility. And the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man provides that “every person has the right to an education that will prepare him to attain a decent life, to raise his standard of living and to be a useful member of society.” These provisions stand for the proposition that a fair chance to improve one’s station through hard work and perseverance is the inalienable right of every human being.
Certain societal assets have long served as doorways to mobility. A quality public education and affordable access to college have helped to catapult generations of Americans from poverty and working-class status into the middle class and sometimes, affluence. Education, moreover, advances human knowledge and development in ways that go far beyond material wealth, and that benefit society as well as the individual. Similarly, a decent job at a living wage not only provides economic advancement through salary, savings and freedom from debt, it also provides the leisure time that is essential to creativity, entrepreneurship, and spiritual development. Home ownership, too, has long been an investment in economic mobility, as well as in strong communities and social networks that aid in broader advancement. Though more esoteric, tax policy is also key to mobility within our society, as it determines the extent to which wealth will be concentrated and perpetuated within a small group from generation to generation or invested in shared opportunity and prosperity for all.
When our nation has invested in the gateways to mobility—such as universal public education, wage and labor laws, progressive taxes, civil rights enforcement, or the GI Bill—we have taken major strides toward achieving our promise as a land of opportunity.