www.economist.com -- AMERICANS are an optimistic lot. If there is one thing they believe in above all, it is the ability to move ahead. In poll after poll, a majority reject the notion that success is determined by forces beyond their control. In early 2009, hardly a sunny period, 71% still agreed that hard work and personal skill are the main ingredients for success. But the reality for most Americans is becoming more complicated. The recession came at the end of a period marked by record levels of inequality. Many Americans, lacking true upward mobility, bought its trappings, such as a bigger house or better car. Disaster duly followed. As the country recovers, two problems cloud its future. Rates of social mobility are unlikely to grow. Inequality, however, may widen even further.These trends have been building up for years. In 1963 John Kennedy declared that a rising tide lifts all boats. Indeed, in 1963 this was true. Between 1947 and 1973, the typical American family’s income roughly doubled in real terms. Between 1973 and 2007, however, it grew by only 22%—and this thanks to the rise of two-worker households. In 2004 men in their 30s earned 12% less in real terms than their fathers did at a similar age, according to Pew’s Economic Mobility Project. The most highly skilled, meanwhile, have stuffed their pockets happily. Between 1970 and 2008 the Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, grew from 0.39 to 0.47. In mid-2008 the typical family’s income was lower than it had been in 2000. The richest 10% earned nearly half of all income, surpassing even their share in 1928, the year before the Great Crash.
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