Embedded in the consciousness of Americans throughout much of the country’s history has been the American Dream: that every citizen, no matter how humble his beginnings, is free to climb to the top of the social and economic ladder. Poverty and Progress assesses the claims of the American Dream against the actual structure of economic and social opportunities in a typical nineteenth century industrial community—Newburyport, Massachusetts.
Here is local history. With the aid of newspapers, census reports, and local tax, school, and savings bank records Stephan Thernstrom constructs a detailed and vivid portrait of working class life in Newburyport from 1850 to 1880, the critical years in which this old New England town was transformed into a booming industrial city. To determine how many self-made men there really were in the community, he traces the career patterns of hundreds of obscure laborers and their sons over this thirty year period, exploring in depth the differing mobility patterns of native-born and Irish immigrant workmen. Out of this analysis emerges the conclusion that opportunities for occupational mobility were distinctly limited. Common laborers and their sons were rarely able to attain middle class status, although many rose from unskilled to semiskilled or skilled occupations.
But another kind of mobility was widespread. Men who remained in lowly laboring jobs were often strikingly successful in accumulating savings and purchasing homes and a plot of land. As a result, the working class was more easily integrated into the community; a new basis for social stability was produced which offset the disruptive influences that accompanied the first shock of urbanization and industrialization.
Since Newburyport underwent changes common to other American cities, Thernstrom argues, his findings help to illuminate the social history of nineteenth century America and provide a new point of departure for gauging mobility trends in our society today. Correlating the Newburyport evidence with comparable studies of twentieth century cities, he refutes the popular belief that it is now more difficult to rise from the bottom of the social ladder than it was in the idyllic past. The “blocked mobility” theory was proposed by Lloyd Warner in his famous “Yankee City” studies of Newburyport; Thernstrom provides a thorough critique of the “Yankee City” volumes and of the ahistorical style of social research which they embody.