Study finds upward mobility is more Hollywood fiction than real-life fact

Man standing atop steps formed from dollar bill

At the root of the American Dream is equal opportunity. It's the idea that we can all make it to the top, regardless of economic status at birth.

But I just saw a story about the latest in a series of studies that debunks that notion.

The study from Pew Charitable Trust's Economic Mobility Project analyzes household income across two generations, comparing the finances of today's adults to the finances of their parents at the same point in their lives.

It found that those brought up in very poor or very rich households didn't see their financial picture change much with age.

An MSNBC story about the study says that only 4% of people who grew up in the bottom fifth of household income climbed to the top fifth in adulthood.

On the other side of the coin, only 8% of those with parents in the top fifth of household income dropped to the lower fifth as adults.

A low 35% of American households were considered upwardly mobile in the study, according to MSNBC.

Those households have a higher household income than their parents did at the same age. They are also at a higher point on the income distribution ladder than their parents were.

Even if you're making more money than your parents did, you may not be climbing in economic status.

Erin Currier, project manager with the Pew Charitable Trust's Economic Mobility Project, tells MSNBC that “clearly families do have more money in terms of what’s coming in every month, but they don’t have greater savings, they don't have greater assets -- for the most part -- than their parents did.”

That's bad news from an upward mobility standpoint. There's more income, but there isn't any more wealth.

"The general public thinks there’s much more mobility than there actually is," said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute.

Rags to riches stories are inspiring. We all love them because we believe it can happen to us, but it's a long shot.

Our hyped U.S. economy parades the American Dream right under our noses, which leads the majority of us to believe that our economy provides far more opportunity for advancement than it actually does.

But that doesn't mean we can't still fight to improve our chances. According to the study, getting a college degree can improve your circumstances.

"The researchers found that a four-year degree triples a person’s chances of making it from the bottom to the top of the income ladder,” MSNBC reports. “College graduates also were more likely to be doing better than their parents were at the same age, in terms of both income and wealth."

But with the rising cost of higher education and the burden of student loan debt, I'm wondering if it's going to continue to be feasible for younger generations to attend college solely to improve their place in the economic hierarchy.

It seems like the American Dream may be just that -- a dream.

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