Up Next


No matter who said it, it’s not true

Truth be told: If you are born poor, you’ll likely die poor, especially if you are black and in the South

It’s not important that in her speech to the GOP on Monday, wannabe first lady Melania Trump stole passages from Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech to the Democratic National Convention.

What’s important is that the passages simply aren’t true. Here’s what Michelle Obama said in 2008 in Denver: “[W]e want our children — and all children in this nation — to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work hard for them.” Here’s what GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump’s wife said Monday in Cleveland: [W]e want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”

Our fondness for the Horatio Alger myth – that with enough grit and imagination, you can be a success – crosses party and racial lines. It’s a guaranteed applause line, one that appeals to our desire for self-determination and our insistence on defining success in capitalistic terms. But this is what researchers know to be true: If you are born poor, you’ll likely die poor, especially if you are black and in the South.

What Drake calls “started from the bottom, now we here,” researchers call economic or social mobility. It’s the likelihood that people can rise from the poorest to the richest in the course of their lifetime. A country with high mobility – where a child can be born poor but rise to relative affluence as an adult – indicates that an individual’s fate is in his hands. And that’s exactly the narrative that the third Mrs. Trump and the only Mrs. Obama want you to believe.

But of the countries with advanced economies, the United States has a shamefully low mobility rate, lower than Denmark, Japan or Canada. (That’s right. If you want to live the American dream, go to Canada.)

In the groundbreaking 2013 Equality of Opportunity Study, lead researchers Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren compared the incomes of parents with the incomes of the children of those parents, when the children became adults.

In Cleveland, where the GOP national convention convenes this week, children born into a family in the bottom quintile of household income has a 5 percent chance of rising to the top quintile of household income as an adult, according to the research. In Philadelphia, where the Democratic National Convention will meet later this month, the odds are slightly better, at 7.7 percent. And in Memphis, Tennessee, where I’m from, the odds are pathetic: Only 2.6 percent of kids born into poor families climb into the top quintile as adults. (See how your city stacks up in this interactive map.)

The researchers found a correlation between higher mobility and communities with better schools, fewer neighborhoods segregated by income and more two-parent households. But as long as we pretend that the American dream is a guarantee, we’re less likely to press for smarter public policy that would support strong families. If we just focus on Melania Trump’s theft, we miss the real crime: We chose laws and lawmakers who created and maintain neighborhoods segregated by class and that tether public school funding to the neighborhood’s poverty.

So in the interest of equal opportunity for all, Melania Trump is free to plagiarize this.

We want children in this nation to know that we will do all we can to dismantle the barriers that keep so many black and brown and poor people from financially secure lives.

My husband knows that he won the birth lottery. He did not start from the bottom. He started at the top, propped up by loans from his dad and all the white privilege in the world.

We know the system is set up to do exactly what it does – make it easy for those who have money and power to hoard it. We benefited from that system. We exploited that system. And today, we recommit ourselves to dismantling that system.

Wendi C. Thomas is a 2016 Harvard Nieman fellow, a senior writing fellow for the Center for Community Change and a freelance journalist. In April, she launched MLK50, an online storytelling project about economic inequality in Memphis. She hopes Dr. King would be proud. On Twitter: @wendi_c_thomas