The Lincoln Myth: Social Mobility in America

by Ken Oldfield

The myth of American society as a land of opportunity, symbolised by Lincoln’s humble origins, disguises the reality of a ruling class born into privilege.

First published: 18 February, 2013 | Category: Inequality

Visitors to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum (ALPM) in Springfield, Illinois risk drowning in American mythology.  The building consists mostly of rooms arranged chronologically.  Each room represents a major stage in Lincoln’s life, starting with the Kentucky log cabin where he was born.  The last exhibit is the Representatives’ Hall in Springfield's Old State Capitol where the 16th President's closed casket sits covered in flowers.  Here visitors can, in effect, pay their last respects to the man John Wilkes Booth assassinated. 

After passing Lincoln’s coffin, the last stage of the tour, people leave the room and re-enter the museum’s spacious central receiving area.  As they emerge into the light, they will see the log cabin where the tour started.  The incredible social distance the museum’s namesake travelled in only fifty-six years is breathtaking.  The unmistakable message behind the museum and the other Lincoln sites in and around Springfield is that despite his meagre beginning, the 16th President’s vast accomplishments prove that America holds a bright future for everyone who works hard and persists.  If you fall short, you've only yourself to blame.  The ALPM is a government owned monument to the land of equal opportunity. 

But is this really true?  In recent years, various researchers have described how the distribution of wealth affects the social mobility odds of lower class Americans.[1]  In the US, the top fifth of the population holds 84% of the country's wealth, while the second quintile owns 11%, the third 4%, the fourth 0.2%, and the bottom quintile 0.1%.[2]  The top 1% of American households possesses 36% of all private wealth, more than the bottom 90% combined.[3]  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has reported that the lowest 20% of American households earned an average annual income of $20,510, while the top 20% received $164,490 – a 8-1 ratio.  These highest versus lowest quintile comparisons exceeded 8-1 in 15 of the nation’s 50 states.  In the late 1970s, not one state had a ratio greater than 8-1.[4] 

Of the twelve most economically advanced countries, the US ranks tenth in intergenerational mobility, only slightly above Britain and Italy.[5]  Tom Hertz notes that during their lifetimes, American children born of low-earning families had a 1% chance of eventually having incomes in the highest 5% category, while children born of wealthy parents were 22 times more likely to earn incomes in this range.  Americans with middle class incomes were just slightly more upwardly mobile than their poorer counterparts were; only 1.8% of children born to families in the middle-income quintile eventually had earnings in the highest 5%.[6] 

Hertz also reported that while in earlier times it was possible for most adults living in a home and working more than 40 hours weekly to achieve at least some degree of upward mobility, this rarely happens today, when ‘people who work long hours on a consistent basis no longer appear to be able to generate much upward mobility for their families.’[7]  Hertz concludes that, ‘the intergenerational findings paint a portrait of a society in which family background matters a great deal, and matters for reasons that many people find unjust.’[8] 

Instead of imagining American society as a land of opportunity, symbolised by the Lincoln mythology, the situation is better understood as a never ending Monopoly game where players, rather than beginning the game with equal amounts of money and no property, inherit and play with the resources, paltry or plentiful, of the last competitor who occupied their seat at the table.  One new entrant might begin with only meagre assets, while their opponent inherits most of the prime properties and a large stockpile of cash. Nevertheless, the poorer competitor has no choice but to play regardless of the odds.  Naturally the wealthier opponent will encourage the less fortunate one to remember Lincoln and have faith that with enough hard work, it is possible to parlay these smallholdings into a fortune. 

The Monopoly analogy is an easy way to see how unearned advantages – the owner's property and money in this case – greatly affect the reality of the American Dream.  Such advantages represent what is a more realistic form of trickle-down economics; the trickling down of financial capital from parents to children.  

However, financial bequests are only one way to get a head start on the competition.  Besides financial inheritances, two other major categories of unearned assets profoundly influence our life outcomes.  First, social capital involves having relatives or knowing people outside the family who can help you gain prized benefits: It is Not What You Know It's Who You Know.  Second, ‘cultural capital’ entails having parents who use proper grammar, growing up in a home where many books and other reading materials are readily available, attending well-resourced – often private/prep – schools and being introduced at a young age to higher status activities such as theatre, symphonies, and overseas travel. 

Notwithstanding a surplus of data pointing in the opposite direction, it is always interesting to see members of the elite twist the Lincoln Myth inside out to justify granting jobs to people of very unLincolnesque origins.  President George W. Bush, for example, bragged that John Roberts, his first US Supreme Court appointment, ‘worked summers in a steel mill to help pay his way through college.’  Never mind that Roberts’s father was an executive and an electrical engineer at the plant where his son worked as, according to Dan Bartlett, counsellor to President Bush, ‘an electrician's assistant.’  Elsewhere, Roberts’s duties were described as including ‘lugging [as opposed to carrying?] tools and running errands.’  Roberts attended private institutions for all his degrees, including spending four years at the La Lumiere School in Indiana, an elite, private, college prep academy.  Tuition and boarding costs at La Lumiere were $35,050 per student for the 2012-2013 academic year, which gives an idea of John’s humble origins.  According to another source, ‘[m]any of his fellow students . . . also had parents in management positions at local mills.’  The school was founded by a group of Chicago-area and Indiana business executives. 

Roberts’s boyhood home in Long Beach, Indiana is in a wealthy area on the Lake Michigan shore where houses sell for $1 million and up.  From these lowly origins, Roberts went on to earn undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard and today is on a Court with eight other Justices who are either Harvard or Yale law school alumni.  

Americans have learned that it is politically incorrect, off limits, to question the legitimacy of inherited financial, cultural, and social capital.  Concerns about ‘bums on inheritances’, or whether giving people such wealth might kill their incentive to work are seldom heard.  What I propose therefore is that to raise awareness of the reality of America today the federal government should build a Museum of Overprivileged Children on the National Mall in Washington, DC, where visitors can be reminded of the unLincolnesque realities of social mobility in America.  In recounting the accomplishments of citizens, both foreign and domestic born, who had a giant head start on the American Dream, the proposed structure could serve as an offset to Springfield’s Lincoln sites.  The museum’s exhibits will encourage visitors to appreciate the accomplishments of people who inherited their advantages fair and square and struggled all the way up from the top.  The name on the new museum should help visitors recognise the other side of the story, and if a few Microsoft programmers visit the Museum of Overprivileged Children, perhaps they will expand their vocabulary accordingly.  My Word software redlines overprivileged and accepts underprivileged.  Things that make you go Hmmmm. 

The Museum of Overprivileged Children will call attention to classism, an ‘ism’ that has yet to find its place in America’s commitment to Justice for All.  If a government owned Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, why not a government owned Museum of Overprivileged Children?  Critics will insist that calling attention to such matters will foster class warfare, an objection intended to strike fear in the hearts of museum supporters lest they be called ‘socialists’ or ‘communists’.  Such complaints only surface when the beneficiaries are people at the bottom of society, a way of thinking that has become routine and normalised in American.  The class warfare canard is reminiscent of the argument that affirmative action rewards the undeserving, those who did not earn their rewards.  In reality America has always practiced affirmative action.  So far though, its undeserving beneficiaries have been those born to the lucky side of the Monopoly board – class based affirmative action for overprivileged children.  

It is time to start redistributing social, financial, and cultural capital downward instead of upward, a process that has been going on since the late 1970s.  This downward redistribution of wealth could be achieved by, among other reforms, the mainstream media hiring more reporters and columnists who focus exclusively on socioeconomic inequalities; the expansion of worker or public ownership; the breaking up of enterprises that become too big to fail (a rationale used to justify their receipt of government bailouts); stronger antitrust laws and strict enforcement thereof; highly progressive gift and estate taxes; class-based affirmative action to favour the underprivileged versus the overprivileged, especially at America's ‘elite’ colleges and universities, which are antidemocratic by definition; a Constitutional amendment overturning Buckley v. Valeo (which held that spending money to sway elections is protected by the Constitutional as a form of free speech); Congress passing a resolution declaring October ‘Social Class Awareness Month’; and large increases in need-based educational scholarships. 

Reformers should also push for laws requiring government officials to gather and publicise yearly statistics on trends in the distribution of wealth and income among Americans, as now happens monthly with other economic measures, including unemployment, inflation, and the trade balance figures.  New requirements should compel federal officials to issue and publicise annual reports on social mobility in America based on socioeconomic origins. 

As testament to America’s new commitment to democracy, the last display visitors will see before leaving the Museum of Overprivileged Children will be an updated version of President Lyndon B. Johnson's 1965 Howard University commencement address about the virtues of equality.  Johnson was speaking about racial equality, but surely a President who declared a War on Poverty would not object to having his comments refashioned to fit our purposes.  Thus in the spirit of the American Dream, museum officials will modernise Johnson's words [as noted by brackets or ellipses] to read: 

For the task is to give [those born of humble origins] the same chance as every other American to learn and grow, to work and share in society, to develop their abilities –physical, mental and spiritual, and to pursue their individual happiness… Men and women of all [classes] are born with the same range of abilities.  But ability is not just the product of birth. Ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with, and the neighbourhood you live in – by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings.  It is the product of a hundred unseen forces playing upon the little infant, the child, and finally the man. 

Kenneth Oldfield is an emeritus professor of public administration at the University of Illinois at Springfield and has published a series of articles and a book discussing the need to increase the number of students, faculty, and administrators of poor and working class origins on university campuses.

[1] Miles Corak, Chasing the Same Dream, Climbing Different Ladders: Economic Mobility in the United States and Canada (Washington, DC: Pew Charitable Trusts, 2009); Lawrence Mishel, Josh Bivens, Elise Gould and Heidi Shierholz, The State of Working America, 12th Edition.  (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2012); Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009)

[2] Michael I. Norton and Dan Ariely, ‘Building a Better America—One Wealth Quintile at a Time’, Perspectives of Psychological Science, 6, no. 1 (2011): 9–12.

[3] Wealth Inequality, March 2011. 

[4] Elizabeth McNichol, Douglas Hall, David Cooper and Vincent Palacios,  Pulling Apart: A State-By-State Analysis of Income Trends (Washington, DC: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities/Economic Policy Institute, 2012)

[5] Miles Corak, Chasing the Same Dream, Climbing Different Ladders: Economic Mobility in the United States and Canada (Washington, DC: Pew Charitable Trusts, 2009)

[6] Tom Hertz, Understanding Mobility in America (Washington, D.C.: Center for American Progress, 2006),

[7] Ibid. p.ii.

[8] Ibid. 33.


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