What’s luck got to do with it? When it comes to money, quite a bit

The notion that hard work is all that’s needed to achieve a prosperous or even comfortable living in the United States has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years as stagnant wages for most workers have led to talk about the demise of the American Dream.

Randy Schutt, a long-time progressive activist and researcher, has created a simple model to help illustrate just how much dumb luck, mere chance and circumstance, can play a role in who becomes wealthy and who remains poor.

The project, intended to illustrate certain nuances about economic inequality to students and researchers, is called “The Chancy Islands: A Land of Equally Capable People But With Unequal Luck.

His imaginary archipelago includes places like Rugged Island and Mercy Island, the first unforgiving, the latter much less so, and everything in between—Flat Island, Combo Island, Parity Island, etc.

“We’re always told that if you work hard and persist through adversity that you can rise above your humble (or horrible) circumstances and become wealthy. But that isn’t true,” Schutt said. “Most people are so beaten down by our economic system that they have to be lucky just to get by. And they have to be very lucky to do well and extremely well to get super rich.”

The statistics bear our Schutt’s narrative. Economic mobility, defined as the chance that someone born in the bottom fifth of the income distribution can sweat their way to the top fifth, is extremely low in the United States (around 7.5%)—and actually much lower than other rich nations, because of a much weaker social safety net.

You can explore the models for yourself by going to the website. But Schutt comes to the following conclusion after having examined all of the different combinations and possibilities exhaustively:

“It turns out that even with absolutely no differences in talent or effort, severe inequality can still arise just from the random shocks of wealth-depleting natural events such as serious illnesses, bad accidents, and natural disasters,” said Schutt. “Some households will amass vast fortunes without having done anything to justify their windfall; others will slide into poverty and homelessness without having done anything to warrant their impoverishment.”

Schutt adds, on a hopefully note, that his model also suggests “a few simple mitigation measures can almost completely rebalance such a society, essentially eliminating any long-term inequality.”

Such policies include, perhaps unsurprisingly, taxing the wealthy in ways that are becoming increasingly popular with the American electorate.