NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) -
The idea that anyone can make it here is so key to our national self-image it ought to be printed on the dollar bill.
Which is why it's hard to ignore an increasing number of economists' claims that the U.S. no longer lives up to its promise and that getting ahead is getting so tough that the very idea of the American dream is threatened.
Some economists and policy makers worry about the dramatic widening of the gap between rich and poor. The top 1 percent of American families, for example, now own as much as the bottom 95 percent combined, the highest such gap among developed nations.
Does that suggest that the American dream may be moving out of reach?
Although growing inequality offends many Americans' sense of fairness, there's no conclusive evidence -- at least not yet -- that it has lessened the odds of getting ahead, especially if you're already middle class.
"Access to the top is still as open -- or closed -- as it used to be," says New York University economist Edward Wolff, one of the nation's leading experts on wealth and a vocal critic of income inequality.
Getting rich will never be easy, whether you start poor or somewhere north of the middle. But the claim that the rich have pulled the drawbridge up behind them is simply false. In an economy as dynamic as this one, they can't.
In the stories below, you'll hear from real people about how they made the American Dream work for them -- and see how you can make it work for you.
Your first investment: Education
The real estate path
Being your own boss
Does the stock market matter any more?