CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Millions of Americans have been enchanted by "Downton Abbey," the PBS television series about a wealthy British family a century ago -- an intriguing array of characters, plus an army of intriguing servants who tend them around the clock in their castle-like mansion.
The long-running show spotlights England's legendary class system, which imposes a strict divide between the elite and lesser folks. George Orwell called Britain "the most class-ridden society under the sun."
However, disturbingly, America today is more class-ridden than present-day England. Researchers say the gulf between privileged Americans and less-advantaged U.S. families is widening badly, damaging the social fabric. Columnist Timothy Egan wrote:
"A raft of recent studies has found the United States to be a less upwardly mobile society than many comparable nations, particularly for men. One survey reported that 42 percent of American boys raised in the bottom fifth of income stayed there as adults. For Britain, the numbers were better by 30 percent. Just 8 percent of American men made the jump from the lowest fifth to the highest fifth, compared to 12 percent for the Brits."
Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, author of The Price of Inequality, wrote:
"Today, the United States has less equality of opportunity than almost any other advanced industrial country .... Economic mobility in the United States is lower than in most of Europe and lower than in all of Scandinavia .... Life prospects of an American are more dependent on the income and education of his parents than in almost any other advanced country for which there is data."
Last year, conservative scholar Charles Murray wrote Coming Apart describing the ever-worsening chasm between educated, successful Americans and the deteriorating blue-collar realm. "Neither party wants to say, you know, we've got a real problem with the working class being less and less able to participate in American life," he commented.
Murray blamed the decline of lower classes on "moral decay" -- more babies out of wedlock, fewer marriages, more drug usage, less diligence in seeking education, less churchgoing. However, we think he got it backward: Loss of career opportunities made the worker class less able to attend college, find good jobs and support families, which brought on the accompanying social ills.
Increasingly, university degrees are necessary for rewarding careers -- and increasingly, only privileged families can send their children to top schools. The New York Times reported:
"In the last school year, tuition, fees, room and board averaged $38,589 at private colleges, up almost $15,000 from a decade earlier, according to the College Board. At public four-year colleges, the total bill came to $17,131, up more than $8,000."
Multiply that yearly tab by four, and you can see why lower-income American families are less able to take advantage of college -- which dooms their children to remain lower-income.
Researcher Anthony DiMaggio wrote about U.S. society:
"It's no secret that inequality today is at its highest level since 1929 ... Income inequality is at its greatest level since the Great Depression, with the top 1 percent of Americans capturing an astounding 93 percent of all annual income gains in the post-2008 era. ... The top 10 percent hold 74.5 percent of all wealth ... while the bottom half hold a minuscule 1.1 percent."America probably won't develop a master-and-servant culture like Britain in the "Downton Abbey" era -- but the U.S. gulf is grimly real, and harmful.