There is a widely held perception that USA is a land of equal opportunities. A country wherein citizens are not bound by the constraints of a rigid or semi-rigid class system. This is the essence of the American Dream and arguably what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they penned in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

It is debatable whether the USA historically matched these ideals with slavery being a standout counteraxmple. However, my interest is USA in the recent past.

Since defining class is difficult, I will use wealth as a proxy. Is it the case that in the USA, a greater percentage of those born poor (by some metric) achieve wealth during their lifetime (by some metric) than in other countries? If not, which country is the most egalitarian in this sense?

  • 10
    You want to search on terms like (Intergenerational) "Social Mobility" which I believe is the accepted term for this type of concern. oecd.org/social/labour/49849281.pdf en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_Social_Mobility_Index Mar 30 at 23:52
  • 1
    regarding definition of class in the US, if you're interpreting that in an associative sense, some pretty convincing observations out there that education - rather than wealth or income - is the larger determining factor. E.g. when taking out other factors like race and age, low income high educated groups with high income high educated, contrast vs high income low educated. For those in the US who are also born in the US, education is in turn partially dependent on where one grows up, due to the way the primary and secondary education available to most people is funded thru property taxes
    – Pete W
    Mar 31 at 3:35
  • 1
    if talking about distribution (vs intergenerational mobility), and you want to boil it down to one numerical figure, Gini coefficient is a popular measure - worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/…
    – Pete W
    Mar 31 at 3:38
  • 1
    Finally you could take a sort of Rawlsian view (imagine you're to be reincarnated as a completely random person in the US of unknown parents - famous thought experiment says it would be logical in that scenario to desire a social structure which maximize the well-being of the bottom stratum), and thus one could simply compare countries using the well-being of the bottom 10% or bottom 20% or something like that, as the key measure.
    – Pete W
    Mar 31 at 3:41
  • 2
    Some resources (don't contain an answer but may be a starting point for others) Corellation of wealth and parental wealth ... Same for Australia ... More of same ... [articles citing these[(scholar.google.co.uk/…)
    – James K
    Mar 31 at 10:26

4 Answers 4


Likely not, at least by social mobility index.

If you were born into a poor family in Denmark, it would take at least two generations to reach the median income, or three in Sweden, Finland and Norway. In France it would take six generations, and nine in Brazil or South Africa.

The US is 27th while China is 45th and India is 76th. Russian Federation is placed 39th.

  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… is a good reference, too.
    – bharring
    Mar 31 at 16:37
  • 1
    I'm a little concerned with how that source stated the claim: "It would take a least two generations to reach median income". Without definitions to clarify what they mean, it's easily falsifiable; there are plenty of examples of that happening within one generation in the US. The dataset shows it's not -common enough-, and that other countries do it better, but the link as stated outright says it can't happen (clearly they must have meant something else).
    – bharring
    Mar 31 at 16:38
  • 1
    This ranking can be found in many sources on the web, Scandinavian countries are mostly on the top
    – Stančikas
    Mar 31 at 20:16
  • The rankings are in line with what I'm seeing, but they don't describe their methodology. And thus the meaning of their numbers.
    – bharring
    Mar 31 at 20:38


According to the Gini coefficient, which is a measure of statistical dispersion intended to represent the income inequality, the wealth inequality, or the consumption inequality within a country. The United States ranks worse than most countries in Eurasia and some countries in Africa and Latin America, so I would say it doesn't fare very well.

I know that egalitarianism doesn't mean equality in outcome, but since there's a wide gap between the best schools in America and the worst schools in America, and healthcare is not affordable for a lot of the underclass in America, I don't think you can argue that the United States is an egalitarian country.


The disparities became more and more stark in the decades after World War II, when white families moved out of the cities into the suburbs and entered school systems there, and black families were stuck in the cities, where property values plummeted and schools lacked basic resources. In some states, where school districts were run on the county level, costs could be shared between rich and poor districts by combining and integrating them, especially after Brown v. Board of Education. But in states like Connecticut, with deeper histories of public schooling, there were hundreds of separate districts, and it was much more difficult to combine them or to equalize funding across them.

But according to some other measures, the United States rank favourably compared to non-Western countries. (Based on the expert assessments and index by V-Dem. It combines information on the extent to which the protection of rights, access to power, and distribution of resources is equal).



The question confuses the equality of opportunity with the equality of outcome. Most European social democracies aim at the latter, by introducing various measures bringing down those who are "more wealthy" and bringing up the "poor". Note that what is defined as "wealthy" and "poor" is rather extendable, e.g., in France the distribution between the officially defined "poor", "middle class", and "comfortable" ("aisés") is 30%-50%-20%. It is instructive to compare the one's monthly income to the image below to determine what economic class the one belongs to:
enter image description here

(Colors from left to right: rich/comfortable/middle class/popular class/poor,
horizontal axis: single person/single parent/childless couple/couple with a child/couple with 2 children/couple with 3+ children)

Equality of opportunity vs. the equality of outcome: Liberal Democracy vs. Marxism
American dream stresses the equality of opportunity. Marx and his followers pointed out that not only the equality of opportunity does not mean the equality of outcome, but it is impossible to achieve the equality of outcome within a political/social system that stresses equality of opportunity (i.e., in the context of Liberal Democracy, which states the equality of individual rights). E.g., this is how Lenin describes it in his book The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky:

There can be no equality between the exploiters—who for many generations have been better off because of their education, conditions of wealthy life, and habits—and the exploited, the majority of whom even in the most advanced and most democratic bourgeois republics are downtrodden, backward, ignorant, intimidated and disunited. For a long time after the revolution the exploiters inevitably continue to retain a number of great practical advantages: they still have money (since it is impossible to abolish money all at once); some movable property—often fairly considerable; they still have various connections, habits of organisation and management; knowledge of all the “secrets” (customs, methods, means and possibilities) of management; superior education; close connections with the higher technical personnel (who live and think like the bourgeoisie); incomparably greater experience in the art of war (this is very important), and so on and so forth.

The Marxist solution to this problem is to limit the rights of those who have any advantage - due to their wealth, education, physical strength or beauty, natural intelligence, etc., for the benefit of disadvantages, performing mundane jobs. Practically this was supposed to be achieved via Workers' councils (Soviets in Russian) organized at workplaces. This is the program that the Russian Communists tried to implement in 1917, and which resulted in easy abuses, summarized by Karl Kautsky himself in his book The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, which prompted the above mentioned response by Lenin, swiftly requalifying Kautsky from The Pope of Communism to Renegade (Kautsky was called the Pope of Communism for his work on preparing for publication the unpublished volumes of Das Kapital after Marx' death.) The crowning jewel in the debate between Kautsky and the Russian communists is the follow-up by Trotsky Terrorism and Communism, justifying the Red Terror as the only possible means of achieving equality.


Since defining class is difficult...

Actually the definition of class is at the root of any answer, and Marx distinguished classes by their relationship to the means of production.

The general idea of the American Revolutionaries was to establish the rights of capitalists against the aristocracy.

In the European "old world", most land was held by a hereditary class of aristocrats whose ancestors had acquired that land in military conquest, or through the political patronage of someone with military strength who had conveyed a landholding. The possession of land in this fashion conveyed certain practical rights to use a portion of the labour power of serfs, who also occupied those lands in a hereditary fashion.

Capitalist merchants established their wealth through networks of economic trade, and later by controlling investment activities (often at first relating to the "improvement" of land) and the contingent employment of farm managers and labourers.

These capitalist activities not only made the capitalists often richer than the aristocrats, but also challenged the traditional and hereditary principles on which both aristocrats and serfs defined their rights and obligations.

However, because the aristocrats controlled the law and other state machinery, they controlled the land on which all things must sit, and because their individual positions were heritable and could not be bought, they could typically subordinate the capitalists by extracting rent and by opposing any capitalist activity which (by either its nature or scale) would patently undermine the workings of the social order in a way detrimental to aristocrats.

The gradual transition of the Old World from feudal to the capitalist mode of production, eventually produced ideas that aristocratic rule should be completely overturned and replaced with capitalist rule. And the American Revolution is basically a fruition of these ideas.

Although there may be other strands of thought mixed in, when the American talks of "equality" he means a status between men which is not complicated by a biologically heritable status (as defines the aristocracy), and by "liberty" he means the freedom to engage in capitalist activity and pursue the interests of the capitalist class.

The inheritance of wealth is not precluded under this scheme, because it was not their intention to equalise the starting point of each generation, their intention was to unleash the capitalist class (whether its members had inherited their wealth or made it in their own lifetimes), and to allow the capitalist rich to rule according to their wealth.

It is debatable whether the USA historically matched these ideals with slavery being a standout counteraxmple.

The United States of America, as a state entity, actually has a fairly unambiguous de jure record on the issue. It has opposed slavery and fought an internal Civil War over the issue of abolition.

The Old World too has generally rejected slavery as a radicalising and destabilising practice since time immemorial.

Slavery largely arose in the somewhat ungoverned and uncivilised space when the New World was being populated and converted to agricultural use by those emanating from and trading with the Old World.

The capitalists are not opposed to slavery on principle. The American Revolutionaries inherited (rather than established or promoted) the widespread practice of slavery, but within a generation or so they had purged it. They did so because of the contradictions it posed to their anti-aristocracy project, and because of the political and military weakness it would ultimately engender.


America does not even suppose to be an "egalitarian" society, and never has. It opposes specific forms of inequality and class society which are not based on possession of wealth, nor based on demonstrable competence in capitalist activity.

To understand what its conception of equality and liberty means, one must refer to the (largely defunct) feudal relations to which it was opposed.

The only vestige that may be witnessed today is in the virulent hatred that liberals, who might otherwise be quite content with undemocratic rich-rule, reserve for monarchs. They may make much of the monarch's special legal status, their tax affairs, even their holdings of hereditary wealth.

But the underlying objection of liberals is that the monarch has these things due to a biological inheritance, that the status of monarch cannot be sold by the incumbent or purchased by someone richer, and that the monarch is not required to engage in any capitalist challenge or demonstrate capitalist superiority to justify their continued occupation of their role.

Because the monarch continues to have a different relationship to the means of production in this way, liberals instinctively perceive the continued threat to their model, and that a relatively economically powerful and very well-known and politically powerful (and often popular) figure exists in the land who is not essentially a capitalist.

  • 3
    The 100 years between the declaration of independence and the civil war are a bit more than "a generation or so" until purging slavery.
    – lidar
    Mar 31 at 14:17
  • 2
    I think the core of what you wrote here, the transition from feudal hereditary focused culture into a liberalized capatalist culture, is what a good answer needs. But your American/European history needs work.
    – bharring
    Mar 31 at 15:10
  • 2
    Re: "America does not even suppose to be an "egalitarian" society" - see archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript - "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" - eqaulity was literally their casus belli. One could argue whether they believe it or achieve it, questioning that is necessary and proper in your answer, but they clearly "suppose"d it.
    – bharring
    Mar 31 at 16:48
  • 2
    @PeteW, I'm describing what liberal has always meant in essence. The liberal does not necessarily agree with equal political rights like voting, since there were property qualifications and plural votes tolerated (much as the liberal seeks to extend the scope of the market, where the rich can exert force in proportion to their wealth). The "1970s progressive-liberal" in the USA is not really a strand of intellectual thought, but simply a mass of true conservatives who want to solve minor problems whilst reproducing the essence of the status quo. (1/2)
    – Steve
    Mar 31 at 17:04
  • 3
    For reasons that are partly but not wholly related to propaganda, those who actually call themselves "conservatives" are often in fact radical liberals and an assortment of other reactionary forces, who don't want to maintain the status quo at all (as the post-war liberal typically does), but want to either go back to a purer form of liberalism or to innovate it into perceived new forms (as for example you see with the owners of tech platforms who espouse various forms of lawlessness and deviance). (2/2)
    – Steve
    Mar 31 at 17:04

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .