Is the American Dream Dead?

Challenges to improving one’s economic status.

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"I'm not saying it's as easy to start a business as it was in past years, or that people feel they can afford to take some of the risks that they would have in the past, but it is still possible to increase one's wealth," she says. "It may take sacrifice in the short term, disciplined savings, a conscious approach to spending, [and] smart investment management, but it's still possible."

However, Kirchenbauer says she believes the era of growing wealth quickly through an investment is over. The tech and real estate bubbles allowed people to climb the economic ladder swiftly, but that wealth was lost just as quickly when those bubbles burst.

"What we have also learned is that you cannot count on your investment portfolio to do all the heavy lifting for you—you have to add to it if you want to see it grow," she says. "I think that many investors had gotten used to the wealth being created almost by magic."

Clarified on 09/29/2012: A previous version of this story misinterpreted Brookings fellow Scott Winship's view on economic mobility. Winship says it is not yet clear whether economic mobility is changing.