Do you believe in the American Dream? Study finds little chance for some

News-DemocratMarch 8, 2014 

A majority of children born into the poorest families remain in poverty as adults, according to a national study conducted by Harvard University researchers that questions whether the American Dream is a myth.

The rise to the top of the economic ladder is tough for children born near or below the poverty level, according to the study.

The study, while national in scope, generated regional statistics compiled from a 30-year period. It looked at those in their early 30s and found only about 5 percent to 8 percent in the metro-east who grew up poor had risen into the top quarter of earners: $63,200 and above for St. Clair County.

By comparison, about 35 percent to 39 percent of those born into poverty remained in that bottom quarter for income after they were 30, or about two in five. In St. Clair County, the bottom quarter earned $13,500 or less.

The average family income of children born between 1980-82 is $61,700 in Monroe County, $49,500 in Madison County and $44,100 in St. Clair County. The top 1 percent of those studied earned more than $190,700.

The success of those children impacts everyone, according to Diane Sonneman, the director of the Griffin Center -- a Catholic Urban Programs agency for children in poverty stricken East St. Louis.

"All of society is impacted by any kid who fails and cannot get out of poverty," Sonneman said. "Whether it's going to be paying for them in jail, whether it's going to be because of their lack of ability to be self-sustaining, or just unfulfilled and unproductive lives in our community."

The researchers drew from a host of data in the study, including an emphasis upon federal income tax records spanning from 1996 through 2012. The team compared the income of parents (up to 40 years old) claiming a dependent in that time with the 2012 income of their children born between 1980-82.

Nationally, researchers found the odds of a person born in the bottom fifth of wage earners in their community has a 7.5 percent chance of rising to the top fifth of earners. One in three people born into the poorest fifth of families in the U.S. will remain in that group as adults.

In St. Clair and Monroe counties, the study found the following for children born into the poorest families:

* 39 percent remained in the bottom fifth percentile of earners.

* 5.1 percent are in the top fifth percentile of earners.

In Madison and Bond counties, the study found these results for such children:

* 35 percent remained in the bottom fifth percentile of earners.

* 8.7 percent are in the top fifth percentile of earners.

The authors of the study believe success is dependent upon a host of factors, including quality public school systems, active civic organizations and especially a family with two parents.

Shirley Brown, of St. Jacob, said she believes the American Dream is a myth. Brown, a retired lieutenant colonel with the Air Force, said other countries do a better job to help those struggling than the United States.

"So, is the American Dream still true? I suggest it has never been true but only a myth used to placate the citizenry so that they don't question the programs and priorities of our government ...," Brown said. "I believe it is the truth to think that any nation is only as strong as its weakest members. So, if we really wish to be a great nation with means for our poorest citizens to rise up the ladder of success, then we need to create paths for them to do so."

Ray Catlett, of Collinsville, said it is possible to achieve the American Dream but you must have the determination to continue pushing even in the face of opposition and personal failures.

Catlett said his parents were products of the Great Depression and did not have the opportunity to attend school because they had to work. Consequently, his father did not have skills to offer the economy following World War II and the family was low-income during his formative years.

Catlett said high school counselors told him that he wasn't "college material" but he ignored their advice and pursued his degree in electrical engineering at the Missouri University of Science of Technology in Rolla after serving in the Vietnam War.

College was not easy after a professor identified him as a veteran, Catlett said. "If you were a Vietnam veteran, you hid. You were spit on, kicked, pushed, shoved. At the time, (President Richard) Nixon was increasing the war and there were lots of different prejudices in those times."

He went on to earn a master's degree from Washington University in St. Louis. Now Catlett said he and his wife are not rich but they are likely near the top 5 percent of earners in the metro-east.

"I look at some of these studies and think you can listen to what some people say about you or ignore it. I did not want to end up like my Dad. I sunk every penny I had into education ...," Catlett said. "You just have to keep going. Even if you fail, you have to keep going."

Slim chances to rise to the top

Locally, the study determined fewer children born into lower income families found financial success in St. Clair County than in neighboring Monroe and Madison counties. Researchers studied the incomes of more than 22,200 people born between 1980-1982 in those counties.

St. Clair County was second-worst in terms of upward mobility and Madison County was ranked 80th compared to the 96 counties studied in Illinois. Upward mobility is a term the researchers use to describe an increase in a family's earnings. Monroe County ranked third best in terms of upward mobility.

The key to escaping poverty is education, according to Sonneman. Achievement in education combats a feeling of hopelessness pervasive among the 500 children attending Griffin Center in East St. Louis.

"One of the things about generation poverty that really feeds into it is the sense they really have no control over their future," Sonneman said. "That it's just destiny. It's fate. That's a big thing we are working with kids is showing them they have lot of options out there. It doesn't just happen. It comes from within. You have the ability and skill to be able to make choices for yourself in which way you go."

The center serves six public housing developments in East St. Louis, which struggles with declining population and entrenched poverty, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The Census Bureau estimates 45 percent of East St. Louis residents have had their income dip below the poverty level in the past year.

Sonneman said she is optimistic about the future and some children in the Griffin program are attending four-year colleges. She added, though, that mixed-income neighborhoods would greatly benefit children looking for role models.

"It's really a failed social project of our country to congregate large numbers of poor people together because that feeds that mindset, that culture, where kids don't know anything else. When you have mixed income living they can see not everybody thinks this way. There are other expectations in the neighborhood of who you are and what you do. I think that partly feeds into the lack of kids able to overcome that," Sonneman said.

"If you look back in East St. Louis ... before integration the black teachers, the black judges and others lived here among those who were poorer. There were always those models where people could see the different ways to be. Now anybody who's got the wherewithal to leave East St. Louis have integrated into other communities leaving a deeply concentrated pool of poverty stricken people."

Can local youngsters escape poverty? Click below for an interactive look.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at or 618-239-2501.

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