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Sonho americano

Questionando lugares comuns sobre mobilidade social :

As the gap between rich and poor has widened since 1970, the odds that a child born in poverty will climb to wealth -- or a rich child will fall into the middle class -- remain stuck. Despite the spread of affirmative action, the expansion of community colleges and the other social change designed to give people of all classes a shot at success, Americans are no more or less likely to rise above, or fall below, their parents' economic class than they were 35 years ago.

Although Americans still think of their land as a place of exceptional opportunity -- in contrast to class-bound Europe -- the evidence suggests otherwise. And scholars have, over the past decade, come to see America as a less mobile society than they once believed.

As recently as the late 1980s, economists argued that not much advantage passed from parent to child, perhaps as little as 20 percent. By that measure, a rich man's grandchild would have barely any edge over a poor man's grandchild.

"Almost all the earnings advantages or disadvantages of ancestors are wiped out in three generations," wrote Gary Becker, the University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate, in 1986. "Poverty would not seem to be a 'culture' that persists for several generations."

But over the last 10 years, better data and more number-crunching have led economists and sociologists to a new consensus: The escalators of mobility move much more slowly. A substantial body of research finds that at least 45 percent of parents' advantage in income is passed along to their children, and perhaps as much as 60 percent. With the higher estimate, it's not only how much money your parents have that matters -- even your great-great grandfather's wealth might give you a noticeable edge today.

Many Americans believe their country remains a land of unbounded opportunity. That perception explains why Americans, much more than Europeans, have tolerated the widening inequality in recent years. It is OK to have ever-greater differences between rich and poor, they seem to believe, as long as their children have a good chance of grasping the brass ring.

This continuing belief shapes American politics and economic policy. Technology, globalization and unfettered markets tend to erode wages at the bottom and lift wages at the top. But Americans have elected politicians who oppose using the muscle of government to restrain the forces of widening inequality. These politicians argue that lifting the minimum wage or requiring employers to offer health insurance would do unacceptably large damage to economic growth.

Despite the widespread belief that the U.S. remains a more mobile society than Europe, economists and sociologists say that in recent decades the typical child starting out in poverty in continental Europe (or in Canada) has had a better chance at prosperity. Miles Corak, an economist for Canada's national statistical agency who edited a recent Cambridge University Press book on mobility in Europe and North America, tweaked dozens of studies of the U.S., Canada and European countries to make them comparable. "The U.S. and Britain appear to stand out as the least mobile societies among the rich countries studied," he finds. France and Germany are somewhat more mobile than the U.S.; Canada and the Nordic countries are much more so.

Even the University of Chicago's Prof. Becker is changing his mind, reluctantly. "I do believe that it's still true if you come from a modest background it's easier to move ahead in the U.S. than elsewhere," he says, "but the more data we get that doesn't show that, the more we have to accept the conclusions."

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