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Less than 5 percent chance for the American Dream in SC

Posted: July 30, 2013 9:01 a.m.
Updated: July 31, 2013 5:00 a.m.

The American Dream is very simple. It is the foundation of our country and our state. It is not written into the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution; no Congress or legislature ever passed laws to make it official.

But every American knows what it means and so do the countless millions of immigrants from around the world who have risked it all to make it happen for themselves and their families here in America.

The American Dream is this: you work hard and play by the rules and your children will be better off than you are. Economists call this “social mobility.”

If this Dream ever stops being real, then we as a country will lose something vital about us and who we are.

And by one recent measure, the American Dream is arguably a dead letter for almost 96 percent of our fellow citizens here in South Carolina -- 95.7 percent to be exact.

A huge new study was recently released by a team of academic economists at Harvard, and according to The New York Times, “researchers are calling it the most detailed portrait yet of income mobility in the United States. The study -- based on millions of anonymous earnings -- is the first with enough data to compare upward mobility across metropolitan areas. These comparisons provide some of the most powerful evidence so far about the factors that seem to drive people’s chances of rising beyond the station of their birth, including education, family structure and the economic layout of metropolitan areas.”

Overall, the study found that where one lives has a great deal to do with their likelihood of moving up the economic ladder. “Where you grow up matters,” said Nathaniel Hendren, a Harvard economist and one of the study’s authors. “There is tremendous variation across the U.S. in the extent to which kids can rise out of poverty.”

The Southeast had the lowest levels of mobility, and the numbers for South Carolina were especially bad.

The study divided the state into 11 geographic regions and divided the people into five income groups -- from the lowest to the highest incomes. Among other things, the study measured the chances of a child being born in the lowest income level rising to the highest.

The S.C. statewide average was 4.3 percent -- that is, a child born in the lowest income category has only a 4.3 percent chance of rising to the highest category as an adult. The 11 regional percentages ranged from a high of 5.4 percent for Charleston to a low of 3.3 percent in the Bennettsville area.

Bennettsville’s score was the fifth worst of all the 741 U.S. regions; Charleston was ranked 670th. Even worse, South Carolina was the only state that had no region where the social mobility scale was above 10 percent.

By comparison: Boston 9.8 percent, New York 9.7 percent, Chicago 6.1 percent, Houston 8.4 percent, Salt Lake City 11.5 percent, San Francisco 11.2 percent. Among the lowest were Atlanta 4.0 percent and Charlotte 4.3 percent. Gettysburg, South Dakota, ranked highest nationally with 34.8 percent rising to the top income levels.

Some will argue that this study may be a valid measure of “social mobility” but not really the American Dream, in that one can move up from the bottom and be better off that their parents but still not rise to the top. Fair enough.

But if you do a really deep dive into the data (available via the NY Times website), you will find that the relative rates of social mobility in South Carolina below the top income levels also lag far behind.

The essential truth remains -- if you are a child born into a low-income household anywhere in South Carolina, you are less likely to rise to the top than in any other state.

There will, of course, be many apologists for failure who will try to explain away our low standing. It’s a familiar pattern of our state’s politicians -- attacking the study instead of attacking the problem.

Yes, we have many great successes in our state that we should all be proud of, but if the American Dream is not real for our people -- if it is less real, in fact, than in any other state -- then something very basic and fundamental is broken in our state.

Every child born in South Carolina deserves better than a 5 percent chance at the American Dream.

(Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley. His column is provided by the S.C. News Exchange.)

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