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If you've been tuned in this election season to the love fests that pass for political conventions, you'll be forgiven for buying into the American myth of social mobility. Politicians of all stripes are repeating the shopworn promise that pedigree is not a gatekeeper to the land of milk and honey and to a mansion on the hill like the 1 percent have.
But the path to the American Dream it is not quite that easy or open, according to a University of Michigan researcher.
The reality is that if you hope to climb the economic ladder, it pays to have the right parents. Native talent, foursquare values, lofty ambition, hard work, pluck and a little bit of luck are all well and good, but they're no substitute for coming from a family with a high net worth, according to Fabian Pfeffer, a sociologist at the U-M Institute for Social Research who is studying inequality across generations around the world.
"Especially in the United States, people underestimate the extent to which your destiny is linked to your background," said Pfeffer. "Research shows that it’s really a myth that the U.S. is a land of exceptional social mobility."
Parental wealth, Pfeffer found, has an influence above and beyond the three factors that sociologists and economists traditionally consider in research on social mobility: parental education, income and occupation. His research is based on data on two generations of families in the U.S. and a comparison with similar data from Germany and Sweden.
"Wealth not only fulfills a purchasing function, allowing families to buy homes in good neighborhoods and send their children to costly schools and colleges, for example, but it also has an insurance function, offering a sort of private safety net that gives children a very different set of choices as they enter the adult world,” Pfeffer said.
It turns out that the path to success and social mobility is often a toll road.
"Despite the widespread belief that the U.S. provides exceptional opportunities for upward mobility, these data show that parental wealth has an important role in shielding offspring from downward mobility and sustaining their upward mobility in the U.S. no less than in countries like Germany and Sweden, where parental wealth also serves as a private safety net that not even the more generous European public programs and social services seem to provide."