If millions of Americans begin believing that the system doesn’t offer them any hope, that the doors to success are locked shut, one of the basic pillars of our society has been pulled away. More than income inequality, the lack of opportunity is the issue that all the candidates, both Democrats and Republicans, should be discussing.

The issue of income inequality has become a major topic in America. The Occupy Wall Street movement drilled into Americans’ heads the image of the 1 percent and the 99 percent.

President Obama has latched on to income inequality as part of his pre-campaign rhetoric, while Mitt Romney and others have dismissed criticism of the wealthy as “envy.” In a survey conducted last month by the Pew Research Center, respondents identified class conflicts as the greatest source of tension in American society, with 66 percent saying they perceived “strong conflicts” between rich and poor.

But while income inequality isn’t a trivial matter (it’s hard to imagine a growing economy in which middle class Americans can’t buy homes or the array of consumer goods we take for granted) it’s not the real economic issue facing America. After all, inequality is a basic element of capitalism; it’s the primary impetus and reward for the investment and innovation that grow the economic pie for everyone, and almost everyone recognizes that. And for all the rhetoric out there, there’s little evidence that Americans begrudge the rich for maximizing their opportunities and their income. Most of us don’t want to drag down the rich — we want to move up the economic ladder and join them.

That’s where the real problem lies. The American Dream is based on the notion that in this country, everyone, through their individual effort and skill, has the opportunity to become successful. However, there’s growing evidence that it’s increasingly difficult for people at the bottom of the pile today to pull themselves up. The data suggest we are becoming more of a caste-like society in which people born poor remain poor and people born rich stay rich. In our view, it’s this diminishing social mobility that is the real threat to our social and economic system.

A recent New York Times article cited five recent studies that all indicate social mobility is declining in America, and that it’s harder to rise in the “Land of Opportunity” now than it is in Canada and many European countries, even a society as famously class-based as Britain. The “stickiness” is most pronounced at the high and low ends, as wealthy families bequeath their advantages in life while poor families are trapped. The Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trust found that 65 percent of Americans born into the lowest fifth of income stay in the bottom two-fifths; about 62 percent born into the top fifth stay in the top two-fifths.

Many theories have been offered for this declining mobility, but the most powerful causes appear to be education and childhood poverty. A strong work ethic and some innate skill were once enough to get ahead in America, but it’s extremely hard to do so today in without a college degree — something children educated in substandard urban schools can find difficult to attain. Meanwhile, with our limited social safety net, growing up in poverty can put a child at such a high risk of poor health, limited development and criminal behavior that the obstacles are almost insurmountable.

If millions of Americans begin believing that the system doesn’t offer them any hope, that the doors to success are locked shut, one of the basic pillars of our society has been pulled away. More than income inequality, the lack of opportunity is the issue that all the candidates, both Democrats and Republicans, should be discussing. If the American Dream doesn’t work, we’re all in trouble.

-- Holland (Mich.) Sentinel