Picking up on a theme I posted about a few weeks ago, let me link to a few posts discussing a new study about income mobility in the U.S. and Europe. Income or class mobility refers to the likelihood that someone born into one class will reach another one. The rich generally stay rich over generations in any society, but how well does society do in lifting the poor into the middle-class? Americans, pointing to individual success stories, cling to a romantic notion that because of America's more fluid and dynamic class structure, "rags-to-riches" life histories are possible in the New World that just wouldn't be in Europe.
Turns out reality is more complex, and most reliable studies show it's not true. Scandinavian countries (and, to a lesser extent, other European countries) do especially well in combating inter-generational poverty, especially in comparison to the U.S. A few recent studies, summarized by U.S. labor lawyer Nathan Newman point this out:
Contrary to many Americans' self-image, there is less social mobility from generation to generation in the United States than in supposedly class-bound Europe-- and the European states like Sweden and Norway with the highest welfare spending also had the most people born in poverty becoming middle class when they grew up [quoting a recent article ($) in the Economist]:
Around three-quarters of sons born into the poorest fifth of the population in Nordic countries in the late 1950s had moved out of that category by the time they were in their early 40s. In contrast, only just over half of American men born at the bottom later moved up. This is another respect in which Britain is more like the Nordics than like America: some 70% of its poorest sons escaped from poverty within a generation...
The obvious explanation for greater mobility in the Nordic countries is their tax and welfare systems, which (especially when compared with America's) deliberately try to help the children of the poor to do better than their parents...to the extent that redistribution is an explanation, it implies the opposite: that social mobility is a product of high public spending, a bit like the low incidence of poverty or longer life expectancy (on both of which Europe also does better than America).
The other advantage for the poor in Nordic countries seems to be a better education system that provides a more equal education for the poor compared to the United States.
The Institute for the Future of Labor study that forms the basis for Newman's post and the Economist article concludes, on p. 27: "Indeed, it is very noticeable that while for all of the other countries persistence is particularly high in the upper tails of the distribution, in the U.S. this is reversed - with a particularly high likelihood that sons of the poorest fathers in the U.S. will remain in the lowest earnings quintile."