Joel Kotkin: The End of Upward Mobility?

Barack Obama's ascension to the presidency won't end racism, but it does mean race is no longer the dominant issue in American politics. Instead, over the coming decades, class will likely constitute the major dividing line in our society—and the greatest threat to America's historic aspirations. This is a fundamental shift from the last century. Writing in the early 1900s, W.E.B. DuBois observed, "The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line." Developments in the ensuing years bore out this assertion. Indeed, before the 1960s, the decade of Barack Obama's birth, even the most talented people of color faced often insurmountable barriers to reaching their full potential. Today in a multiracial America, the path to success has opened up to an extent unimaginable in DuBois's time.

Obama's ascent reflects in particular the rise of the black bourgeoisie from tokens to a force at the heart of the meritocracy. Since the late 1960s, the proportion of African-American households living in poverty has shrunk from 70 percent to 46 percent, while the black middle class has grown from 27 percent to 37 percent. Perhaps more remarkable, the percentage who are considered prosperous—earning more than $107,000 a year in 2007 dollars—expanded from 3 percent to 17 percent.

Yet as racial equity has improved, class disparities between rich and poor, between the ultra-affluent and the middle class, have widened. This gap transcends race. African-Americans and Latinos may tend, on average, to be poorer than whites or Asians, but stagnant or even diminishing incomes affect all ethnic groups. (Most housecleaners are white, for instance—and the same goes for other low-wage professions.) Divisions may not be as visible as during the Gilded Age.

As Irving Kristol once noted, "Who doesn't wear blue jeans these days?" You can walk into a film studio or software firm and have trouble distinguishing upper management from midlevel employees.

But from the 1940s to the 1970s, the American middle class enjoyed steadily increasing incomes that stayed on a par with those in the upper classes. Since then, wages for most workers have lagged behind. As a result, the relatively small number of Americans with incomes seven times or more above the poverty level have achieved almost all the recent gains in wealth. Most disturbingly, the rate of upward mobility has stagnated overall, which means it is no easier for the poor to move up today than it was in the 1970s.

This disparity is strikingly evident in income data compiled by Citigroup, which shows that the top 1 percent of U.S. households now account for as much of the nation's total wealth—7 percent—as they did in 1913, when monopolistic business practices were the order of the day. Their net worth is now greater than that of the bottom 90 percent of the nation's households combined. The top 20 percent of taxpayers realized nearly three quarters of all income gains from 1979 to 2000.

Even getting a college degree no longer guarantees upward mobility. The implicit American contract has always been that with education and hard work, anyone can get ahead. But since 2000, young people with college educations—except those who go to elite colleges and graduate schools—have seen their wages decline. The deepening recession will make this worse. According to a 2008 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, half of all companies plan to cut the number of new graduates they hire this year, compared with last. But the problem goes well beyond the current crisis. For one thing, the growing number of graduates has flooded the job market at a time when many financially pressed boomers are postponing retirement. And college-educated workers today face unprecedented competition from skilled labor in other countries, particularly in the developing world.

The greatest challenge for Obama will be to change this trajectory for Americans under 30, who supported him by two to one. The promise that "anyone" can reach the highest levels of society is the basis of both our historic optimism and the stability of our political system. Yet even before the recession, growing inequality was undermining Americans' optimism about the future. In a 2006 Zogby poll, for example, nearly two thirds of adults did not think life would be better for their children. However inspirational the story of his ascent, Barack Obama will be judged largely by whether he can rebuild a ladder of upward mobility for the rest of America, too.