The ability to move upward in social class or economic position (i.e., social mobility) is a defining feature of the American Dream, yet recent public-opinion polls indicate that many Americans are losing confidence in the essential fairness of the system and their opportunities for financial advancement. In two studies, we examined Americans’ perceptions of both current levels of mobility in the United States and temporal trends in mobility, and we compared these perceptions with objective indicators to determine perceptual accuracy. Overall, participants underestimated current mobility and erroneously concluded that mobility has declined over the past four decades. These misperceptions were more pronounced among politically liberal participants than among politically moderate or conservative ones. These perception differences were accounted for by liberals’ relative dissatisfaction with the current social system, social hierarchies, and economic inequality. These findings have important implications for theories of political ideology.The author's introduction, after noting pessimistic views on social mobility - "A recent Gallup poll (Dugan & Newport, 2013) found that only 52% of Americans agreed that there is plenty of opportunity for the average person to get ahead in life—down from 81% a mere 15 years earlier and the lowest level in over six decades." - points to the actual data on social mobility changes:
The publication of a recent, multidecade report provided us with an opportunity to compare those public perceptions with economic reality. Chetty, Hendren, Kline, Saez, and Turner (2014a, 2014b) compared the tax records of nearly 40 million American adults with those of their parents 20 years earlier, assessing changes in individuals’ economic position relative to their starting point in life (i.e., their parents’ economic position). They also compared individuals born in different decades, from the early 1970s through the mid 1990s, to assess any generational changes in mobility patterns. First, they found (as have Hertz, 2007; Lee & Solon, 2009) that intergenerational mobility rates have not declined, but in fact remained stable during the three-decade period they examined—contrary to popular belief (Dugan & Newport, 2013; Pew Research Center, 2012). Second, their data revealed that Americans enjoy—depending on one’s perspective—a substantial amount of social mobility. For example, of individuals born to parents in the bottom third of the income distribution (i.e., lower-class parents), 49% remained in the bottom third later in life, whereas 51% moved up to the middle or top third. In other words, despite their disadvantaged backgrounds, half of them were upwardly mobile (though still below the two-thirds one might expect based on the American Dream). Moreover, because they utilized much larger sample sizes, actual tax records (instead of self-reported income), and multiple indicators of mobility (e.g., incomes, college attendance rates), Chetty and colleagues’ study yields more precise estimates of social mobility than prior studies, and their findings are consistent with those of other published reports (Pew Research Center, 2013; U.S. Department of the Treasury, 2007). This makes their study the most appropriate standard to gauge our participants’ perceptual accuracy.