HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — A widening income gap and sagging social mobility have left dents in the American dream. But the belief that anyone with enough gumption and grit can clamber to the top remains central to the nation’s self-image.
And that could complicate Democratic efforts to frame the 2020 presidential election as a referendum on a broken economic system.
Americans, who tend to link rewards to individual effort, routinely overestimate the ease of moving up the income ranks, while Europeans — citing an unfair system, inherited wealth and sticky social classes — consistently underestimate it, surveys have found.
For moving from the bottom of the income ladder to the top, the South offers the worst odds in the United States. But it’s also the region where people are most optimistic about the prospects.
“Fifteen to 20 percent?” guessed Vicki Winters, a retired contract specialist at the Defense Department who lives with her husband, George, in a predominantly white Huntsville suburb.
The actual chances of making that climb in Alabama are a shade above 5 percent. Nationwide, they are less than 8 percent. And in Madison County, where the Winterses live, the odds that a child will escape poverty are among the lowest in the nation.
The county’s dismal ranking is in some ways surprising given Huntsville’s reputation as a dynamic and growing technology hub centered on NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the Army Aviation and Missile Command. It has an unemployment rate below 3 percent, is close to a string of colleges and universities and has a business-friendly profile.
“There are a lot of jobs in Huntsville,” said Gregory G. Parker, who presides over the front desk at the Optimist Recreation Center, named for the service club that helped create it. On a recent morning, he was checking in the regular pickleball players. “People just have to have the drive to strive.”
Huntsville was one of the first racially integrated cities in the South as a result of civil rights sit-in campaigns in the early 1960s. But the legacy of Jim Crow and redlining persists in the city as it does elsewhere in the region, with concentrated pockets of poverty.
One of those can be found at the city’s office for social services and food stamps, a low-slung, blocklong building flanked by a pawnshop and a Salvation Army thrift store. On a steamy weekday, public-assistance recipients and applicants waited for a bus under a shady tree.
“You’ve got to work hard, but it can happen,” said Edward Stokes, adding that he had often found himself one paycheck away from homelessness. He had just come from signing up for a program at the city’s career center.
Why inequity and disadvantage produce such hopefulness is not as unusual as it might initially seem. In the most economically stricken areas, residents understand that “nobody is going to help you,” said Roland Bénabou, an economics and public affairs professor at Princeton University.
So the only way to retain hope and motivate your children is to “think that if you just work hard or study hard, you will make it,” he said. “Otherwise there is no hope and no incentive to work, and then for sure you’ll remain poor.”
Mr. Bénabou also noted that whether you believe people get what they deserve in terms of rewards and punishments often varies widely by country.
Americans are strong believers in what psychologists call a “just world,” one where people get what they deserve and deserve what they get, he said. “If you’re poor, you must have not worked hard or are lazy, and if you are rich, it must be due to your own merits, efforts and talents,” he said. “Europeans think it’s much more due to luck.”
Those perceptions were confirmed by Harvard University researchers after conducting broad surveys in Europe and the United States, published last year. They asked people in five countries to estimate a child’s chances of moving from the bottom fifth of the income distribution to the top fifth.
The kind of audacious hope they uncovered could hinder the Democratic case that fundamental changes are needed to enhance economic opportunity.
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts announced her presidential campaign with an indictment of a “rigged system that props up the rich and powerful and kicks dirt on everyone else.” Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has rallied crowds with attacks on the “rigged economy.” And former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has talked of the “rigged labor market.”
They, and other Democratic contenders, have proposed ambitious programs for easing the upward trek confronting children from poor families, like free college, universal health care and childhood savings accounts or bonds.
Yet views about the government’s ability to even the playing field are tangled up with attitudes about the system’s fundamental fairness.
“If people think opportunity is equal, they will tolerate more unequal outcomes,” said Stefanie Stantcheva, an economist who was part of the Harvard research team.
Oddly, segregation does not dampen America’s unique brand of optimism, but augments it. “We find that perceptions are more optimistic when there is more racial segregation,” the Harvard researchers said.
Whether people think opportunity is equally available, though, often depends on their political viewpoint.
Liberals are generally more pessimistic than conservatives about the ability of poorer Americans to hoist themselves up economically, and they are more inclined to support government programs meant to ease the route. Tell them that social mobility from one generation to the next is less than they thought, and their support for public assistance increases.
For conservatives, none of that is true. Learning that they have overestimated the odds does not increase their support for government intervention, but causes it to drop even further.
“We didn’t expect this very stark polarization,” Ms. Stantcheva said. It is not that conservatives do not consider flagging social mobility to be a serious issue, but rather that they think government will make the problem worse.
The political split may also help explain the South’s particular optimism. The region has leaned conservative for decades. Alabama, like most of its neighbors, has not voted for a Democrat in a presidential election since 1976.
Ms. Winters is one of those dedicated Republicans. Her husband described himself as a lifelong Democrat.
Mr. Winters figured the odds that poor people could work their way up were slim. For him, that is evidence that the government needs to do more.
For Ms. Winters, hearing that the odds of moving up the income ladder are actually much lower than she had guessed did not change her opinion that government assistance was wasteful.
“There are too many handouts to collect from the government,” Ms. Winters said, “instead of going out there and trying to work, and putting your money in a savings account.”