The 'Great Gatsby Curve': why economic mobility has ground to a halt in the USA

  • 4 min read

Jeff Bezos’ personal wealth has grown by a staggering $74 billion since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. In the three months between March and June, Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett, and Larry Ellison’s collective income increased by $101.7 billion. Elon Musk’s personal fortune has tripled in the last year. He’s now worth $75 billion. 

In a country where so many folks can’t afford food and basic healthcare, how have the super-rich amassed such monumental fortunes?

America’s income gap is the largest it’s been in over 50 years

Buckle up, because here comes some more disappointing stats. Our country’s median salary is 50% lower than it should be. And, as a result, 1% of US households hold 15 times more wealth than the bottom 50% combined.

Those numbers sound pretty shocking, but it’s hard to translate them in real-world terms. A billion dollars is a tough figure to wrap your head around, especially if you’re making minimum wage. 

In September, a data reporter for theWashington Posthelped put Bezos’ fortune into perspective when he tweeted

“If Jeff Bezos gave all 876,000 Amazon employees a $105,000 bonus, he'd be left with exactly as much money as he had at the start of the pandemic.”

Of course, many would view Bezos’ success as the epitome of the American Dream. We live in a culture that encourages the rich to get even richer, while the middle- and lower-class have a much harder time accumulating and growing their wealth. 

The Great Gatsby Curve: plotting America’s inequality in a comprehensible way

The Great Gatsby Curve is a visual representation of how financial wealth moves through generations. A child born into wealth will find it much easier to maintain their position on the economic ladder compared to someone born into a low-income household. In fact, the single biggest indicator you will die rich is that you were born rich. Rich kids stay rich. Few others reach that status. 

The chart also compares the social (in)equality in a number of countries around the world. Unsurprisingly, Nordic countries like Denmark, Norway, and Finland have some of the greatest social mobility. But the US was on the lower end of the spectrum alongside Argentina, Chile, and Brazil. 

While some children born into low-income households will be able to break out of poverty and grow their wealth — like Jay Gatsby, the analysis’ namesake — most have no chance of improving their economic status as adults.

In the US, the divide between rich and poor will likely get steeper over the coming few decades, as it has since 1980. Children of wealthy parents have more access to opportunities, resources, and education. Through these privileges, they build their own wealth, which they then pass on to their own children, and so on. 

The rich just keep on getting richer (again)

Our economic system in America is rigged to favor the wealthy, leaving the poorest citizens to silently struggle. The media is complicit in promoting and celebrating the capitalist tendencies that are pushing us apart and screwing us over. 

But hands up if you believe in a dog-eat-dog rat-race world? No, us neither. This is a time when we need to all be coming together, helping each other out, and working as a community. 

We can’t count on Zuckerberg and Bezos to help close the wealth gap — not when there’s more money they can make. It’s up to us to change our future.

How can we, as individuals, help close the wealth gap?

Take a personal stand

We definitely need more transparency when it comes to money. Our personal finances are still something of a taboo topic in social conversations, but it’s impossible to address any economic issues in our country without being able to speak openly and frankly about money. Be open with your coworkers about whatyou’re earning . That way you can hold employers accountable for any biased discrepancies in your wages.

Push your way into exclusive spaces

The stock market can be intimidating — you’d be forgiven for writing it off as an elitist club, for wealthy individuals alone. But that's exactly what they want you to think.

Truth is, anyone can invest in stocks. And it’s a great way to potentially grow your personal wealth, too. You can get started with an app like Robinhood, or find YouTube tutorials that’ll help you get a foot in the door. For most of us, all we need to know about making sound financial decisions can fit on a 4”x6” index card.

Vote with your wallet

The reason Amazon is such a money-making machine is because of the convenience it brings to peoples’ lives. Yes, it’s easy to order toilet paper through your Alexa and have it show up on your doorstep in two hours. But it’s so, so much better to support local shops and businesses. 

Wherever possible, avoid giving your money to billion-dollar corporations, and instead buy from local sellers and eat at family restaurants. 

Together, we can help to begin reversing the ever-widening income gap in our country. And every little action you take can add up to serious positive change.

Ready to read more about how we can build a brighter future together by creating a society that works for all of us, not just the wealthy few? Head over to the Good Life blog. Want to help this project succeed? Head over to our store and pick up one of our signature Out of Office Button Downs.