The Occasional Upper-Class

In a summary (NYT) of the findings from his new book, Chasing the American Dream, Mark Robert Rank explains that “the 1 percent” doesn’t include the same people from one year to the next:

It turns out that 12 percent of the population will find themselves in the top 1 percent of the income distribution for at least one year. What’s more, 39 percent of Americans will spend a year in the top 5 percent of the income distribution, 56 percent will find themselves in the top 10 percent, and a whopping 73 percent will spend a year in the top 20 percent of the income distribution.

Yet while many Americans will experience some level of affluence during their lives, a much smaller percentage of them will do so for an extended period of time. Although 12 percent of the population will experience a year in which they find themselves in the top 1 percent of the income distribution, a mere 0.6 percent will do so in 10 consecutive years.

It is clear that the image of a static 1 and 99 percent is largely incorrect.

After a few celebratory digs at the left, Kevin Williamson uses these findings to urge conservatives to re-focus on poverty:

Professor Rank’s work and the reality of what an optimist might call lifetime income dynamism and a pessimist might call lifetime income instability should have conservatives rethinking their approach to the issue. It is not enough to explain that income inequality does not mean what Paul Krugman wants his readers to think it means, or to keep hammering away at the necessary but not sufficient project of reorienting our welfare programs toward work and the Sisyphean labor of trying to make those programs at least operationally efficient. A deeper appreciation for the lumpy and unpredictable nature of personal income over the course of a working life might help conservatives to deal with the issue of risk aversion, which is a critical factor behind our generally poor record of connecting with women and non-white voters, who lack the economic confidence of traditional conservative constituencies, and not without some reason. Selling an ownership society to people who are terrified of and baffled by the stock market is not a model for success.

But, as Danielle Kurtzleben points out, Rank’s book also addresses the barriers to achieving success in America, of which there are several:

Being smart, white, and coming from a wealthy family may not guarantee a person will achieve the American Dream, but all of those things can help by putting a person at the center of the funnels, the authors write. Falling right through all of those funnels — good primary schooling, getting a higher education, and finding a good job — makes it all the easier to get to the end goal.

Being lower-skilled or growing up poorer, meanwhile, starts a person out at a disadvantage. It means more distance to travel to get to the center of the funnel, meaning more obstacles to be overcome. So having to work harder to even graduate can keep a person out of the middle. And Americans who grow up poor, for example, have a tough time of climbing the ladder — much harder than their peers in other countries. Likewise, SAT scores tend to be higher for kids from higher-income families.