The claim is a familiar one, taught by parents, reinforced by teachers, and pledged by politicians: work hard and you will get ahead. Study, apply yourself, and prosper. As a nation with no identifying religion, culture, or cuisine, the United States has, in many ways, been defined by this simple but powerful promise: a better life comes to those who take advantage of talent and opportunity through hard work. This promise is the basis of the American dream. Increasingly it may be a lie.

Robert D. Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard, paints a sobering picture of the current state of the American dream. Balancing biographical examples and the latest quantitative sociological research, Putnam describes an America where success is increasingly determined by where one is born and to whom, rather than how hard one works.

The nation is facing a troubling, even disorienting shift that may well be unique in our history. On average, young Ameri­cans today are less educated, less prosperous, less likely to own a home, less politically potent, and less socially and economically mobile than their counterparts of a generation before. In the United States of the 21st century, birthright has come to mean significantly more than effort in determining who succeeds and who does not.