The Bootstraps myth: Is America as much of a meritocracy as we'd like to believe?

Data suggests otherwise

Picture this: two candidates take the stage for a debate. One steps to the podium and begins with a few biographical facts. He was born to a factory worker and a stay-at-home mom, and he went to public school. Before says a word about policy, the second candidate steps up to the mic. You find out he went to private boarding school, and his dad was a doctor.

Whether you realize it or not, in that moment, your brain has already taken some shortcuts to help you process what’s going on. Despite the fact that you don’t know anything about how either candidate feels about poverty, food stamps, schools, or taxes, there’s a good chance you’ve made some assumptions about the candidate from a working class-background.

This is where we get in trouble, says political scientist Meredith Sadin. She studies social class and voting behavior at U.C. Berkley, and she runs real-life experiments that look a lot like the scene you just pictured.

“These stories, which are sometimes very emotionally compelling, they are persuasive,” Sadin says. “But when you actually look at lawmaker’s roll call votes and behavior, they don’t really explain much at all.

On this week's podcast, we ask why are voters so easily swayed by this narrative? Probably because it’s part of America's  DNA. It’s the “bootstraps” myth, the one that says no matter where you come from or how far behind you start, you can work hard and rise up.

But as compelling as the story is, the data show it’s not nearly as common as we’d like to believe.

Richard Reeves is an economist at the Brookings Institution. He predicts how much money people will make by crunching data on their parents-- race, income, education levels, et cetera. Reeves says if America was really the meritocracy we believe it to be, it would be a lot more difficult for him to predict where a kid would end up in life by studying their parents. After all, isn’t that what the earliest American settlers were trying to get away from back in Old World Europe?

These days, ironically, children born into poverty in European countries like Denmark and France have a much better chance of rising up, bootstraps style, than poor kids here in the U.S. A child born to parents on the lowest rung of the economic ladder in America has a 40 percent chance of staying there. Just one in ten children born into families on that rung will end up in the top fifth of the U.S. income distribution.

For certain groups, Reeves says, the chances are even more slim. More than half of children born to poor parents who are black, for example, will stay poor. The children who do move up the economic ladder don’t move very far. It’s also more likely for black families who do move out of poverty into the middle class to fall back down to the bottom of the ladder.

There are two lessons we learned from talking to experts about this. First, we have to ask ourselves if economic mobility is something we really want to make real in America. If it is, there’ a lot of work to be done implementing policies that help people climb out of poverty.

Second, when it comes to electing our representatives, we have to keep our emotions in check. A great bootstraps story might sound great, but we can’t let it sweep us off our feet. Instead, we have to look at how a lawmaker actually acts in office.

No one wants to give up on the American dream, but we have to keep it real. 

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