What Keeps the American Dream Alive?

December 16th, 2011 at 1:50 am | 22 Comments |

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President Obama’s recent speech on income inequality and upward mobility has struck a chord with many Democrats. If the President keeps using this rhetoric, then it could become a central message of the 2012 campaign. If this happens, I would also bet that Elizabeth Warren will give the keynote speech at the Democratic Convention in 2012.

What’s interesting is that while there is growing awareness that America is a more unequal country, there is less awareness that America is also a less upwardly mobile society.

The Pew Economic Mobility Project has done a lot of polling on how Americans view economic mobility. In a poll conducted in May of 2011 (before Occupy Wall Street) one of the most important questions Pew asked tackled mobility directly:

Question 51:

Which of the following young people is more likely to get ahead economically?

Young person A grew up in a poor neighborhood. Young person A has the drive and ambition to get ahead.

OR

Young person B grew up in a wealthy neighborhood. Young person B lacks drive and ambition.

78% of respondents thought that a person born in a poor neighborhood but with “drive and ambition” is more likely to get ahead than a person born in a wealthy neighborhood.

This may be what people believe but simply having “drive and ambition” is not enough to actually pull yourself into a higher economic bracket. What we know is that there are certain choices that need to be made to make it more likely:

Brookings economists Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill studied the noneconomic components of poverty and came up with a rule. “If young people do three things — graduate from high school, get a job, and get married and wait until they’re 21 before having a baby — they have an almost 75% chance of making it into the middle class,” Haskins said.

What happens if you have “drive and ambition” but there are no jobs available in the economy? Or what if your parents can’t afford to send you to good schools, or the public schools in your area are terrible?

While we would like to believe that the person who is born wealthy will lose the chance to get ahead economically, I would still put money on the proposition that Person B is more likely to get ahead than Person A.

Americans also put more weight on values such as “Creativity” and “Talent” in determining where a person ends up as opposed to more mundane but important demographic facts such as whether a child grows up in a two parent family:

Question 52.

Which of the following young people is more likely to get ahead economically?

Young person C is talented and creative. Young person C grew up in a poor neighborhood.

OR

Young person D is an average student and lacks imagination. Young person D grew up in a wealthy neighborhood.

72% think the talented and creative poor student will do better than the average wealthy student who lacks imagination.

Question 53. Which of the following young people is more likely to get ahead economically?

Young person C is talented and creative. Young person C comes from a one-parent family.

OR

Young person D is an average student and lacks imagination. Young person D comes from a two parent family.

70% think the talented student from a one parent family is going to get ahead further than the average student from a two parent family.

While the American people can be admired for their optimism, it is an optimism that I think is strongly misplaced. Significant research has shown that families where both parents are working have a significant advantage over families where only one parent is working or where there is only one parent.

It’s this optimism that lets Marco Rubio declare that “[America is] the only place in the world where it doesn’t matter who your parents were or where you came from. You can be anything you are willing to work hard to be.” or for Paul Ryan to argue “Telling Americans they are stuck in their current station in life, that they are victims of circumstances beyond their control, and that government’s role is to help them cope with it – well, that’s not who we are. That’s not what we do.”

This isn’t just a Republican myth, its a fundamentally American myth, and one which does not hold up under close scrutiny.

One of the (many) great challenges for public policy over the next few years will be figuring how to make the American dream a true reality. The instinct that ambition and hard work should be properly rewarded is the right one for Americans to have. Surely if Denmark can figure it out, so can the country which invented the American dream in the first place.

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22 Comments so far ↓

  • hisgirlfriday

    “Telling Americans they are stuck in their current station in life, that they are victims of circumstances beyond their control, and that government’s role is to help them cope with it – well, that’s not who we are. That’s not what we do.”

    What about telling Americans that the government’s role is to help them advance their station in life and overcome circumstances beyond their control?

    Have any of these fools ever met someone who lived through the Great Depression? Have they ever met someone who took out a federal student loan or an FHA loan? I’m pretty sure they have met someone who collected Social Security (which Paul Ryan got when a circumstance beyond his control… his dad dying… dictated the government to step in and provide him assistance to overcome that obstacle).

    It’s just insanity to pretend the government plays no role in fostering the American dream or helping people gain upward mobility.

    My first-generation American grandma, born in 1915, was incredibly brilliant, devoured books and taught her father the English she learned at the public school as a child at the same time he taught her Serbian at home. Heading into her senior year of high school , she was on a path of becoming an English teacher as a career despite being the daughter of a coal miner/factory worker father and a boarding house operator mother. But because of the Great Depression hitting her parents and four siblings so badly, she was forced to drop out of high school and move 50 miles away from her family to go live with a cousin who owned a grocery store and would provide the family with groceries in exchange for her working there.

    THANKS TO THE GOVERNMENT and the CCC camps that the New Deal created, her brothers were able to get experience in the world working to build camps around the country and send money back to the family that was desperately needed and my grandma was able to eventually return home and get a cosmetology certificate to open a beauty parlor in the home.

    THANKS TO THE GOVERNMENT and the GI BILL that Congress provided World War II vets, my Marine vet grandpa was able to secure an affordable loan for my grandparents to own their own dream home.

    THANKS TO THE GOVERNMENT funding affordable quality state public universities, my grandmother was able to see her daughter (my mother, who also worked her way through school) get a college degree and become a math teacher.

    THANKS TO THE GOVERNMENT providing my grandma with social security income and Medicare in her senior years, she was able to leave her grandchildren a modest inheritance and help them pay for their college (at the same time they worked their way through school) without taking on massive debt despite the huge explosion of college costs to advance the family further up the ladder with degrees in engineering, pharmacy and law.

    We as Americans are responsible for putting in the work and running with the opportunities we have to realize the American dream, but it is up to the government to keep things running well enough that it’s still worth dreaming.

    • zaybu

      Thanks for sharing this.

    • Reflection Ephemeral

      My family’s story is very much like this– the role of the GI Bill, a family more likely to earn advanced degrees as the past three generations have moved along.

      Not everyone had those opportunities. “Never a Level Playing Field: Blacks and the GI Bill”. http://www.jstor.org/pss/2962479

    • Nanotek

      + 1

      and 99% of those I rely on every day … seen and unseen … have similar histories

    • Ogemaniac

      That reminds me of my father’s life.

      His dad worked for the government, after surviving WWII and taking advantage of the GI bill. Grandpa’s government job, along with generous state aid, paid for my dad to go to state university. What little dad paid out of pocket came from his summer job on a public road crew – a job that he got through grandpa’s connections and paid $20/h or so in today’s terms. Of course, grandpa’s government pension kept sure he and my grandma never had any money worries, despite their long lives. Additionally, the same is true of his in-laws – my mother’s dad was also a government employee with fair pension.

      Dad never paid much of anything for his kids to go to college – we both paid our way mostly with loans and publically funded scholarships at state schools or community college. Of course, we went to public K12 as well.

      It get’s even better. Dad drives a lot for his job, yet we all know that gas taxes, which haven’t budged since the Reagan years, are no longer anywhere near sufficient to raise enough revenue to pay for road upkeep. Then there are all the hidden costs related to securing oil and pollution which he doesn’t have to pay for. So dad’s job is heavily subsidized. When he got laid off a while back, he spent a beautiful summer playing golf rather than really looking for a job – why rush? Then, during the crapstorm of 2009, dad’s job was quite obviously saved by the auto-industry bailout, while it is also highly likely that my mother’s and brother’s jobs were saved by the stimulus.

      Yes, my father. A stereo-typical Republican self-made man, who sits around with this country club buddies after their 54th hole of the week, complaining how that socialist Obama has played golf almost twice a month since he took office, while swapping stories about how their other country club buddy managed to qualify for food stamps despite having a million dollar 401k and owning two houses.

      I love Republicans. I really do.

      • hisgirlfriday

        Heh. This actually reminds me somewhat of my dad’s friends, all farmers who all benefit in some way from government ag subsidies, who can’t stop complaining about Obama’s socialism.

  • Ray_Harwick

    Fist bump to Noah. I was braced to argue about what the American dream consists of. I think your examples adequate, however. For most Americans, making it to the middle class is like the high bar not unlike the lyrics of “New York, New York” set for the rewards of making it in the Big Apple. If you can make it to the middle class, you can make it anywhere and you might get lucky and go furture. But there has to be road to travel, an elevator in operating order, a rocket to ride. There are a lot of people who paid for stand-by tickets they’ll be lucky to ever get to us.

  • aquaman

    Our society is designed to guarantee the children of privilege remain privileged, regardless of skill or effort.

  • Baron Siegfried

    You’re being too restrictive in your interpretation of ‘success’. Some of the most successful people I know possess little in the way of worldly goods, but are serenely content with who they are and what they have. Some of the most miserable people I know have more crap than they can keep track of, but their lives are a wreck. The ‘American Dream’ is a happy and fulfilled life where your children can be as successful as their talents can take them, not a cutthroat competition to see who can die with the biggest dungheap.

    If your definition of ‘success’ is ‘lotsa cash’, then the kid from the inner city with drive and intelligence may wind up becoming a rich and successful drug lord whose wealth and possessions match anything he could have gotten from the mainstream world. For a while, anyway . . . The career paths for them are different, with different obstacles, but they exist. We just condemn them.

    One of the things I like to point out to my libertarian friends is that the various mexican drug cartels are simply the logical outcome of a purely unregulated highly competitive industry, and they should be holding them up as a shining example of the free enterprise system. They get extremely annoyed when I point out that given their ideology, Al Capone should be one of their heroes.

    The world we live in has become one of continual, ongoing change – indeed, change is the defining characteristic of the American dream. Something I’m seeing more and more of is that the young are charting their own paths now, not entering the proverbial corporate rat race. A lot of the folks around me are young entrepreneurs who are NOT willing to sacrifice their morals or ethics to chase the almighty dollar, though that might (will) change as their responsibilities and duties multiply as their families grow. The people I work around are craftspeople whose pride in their work is more important than what they drive, how big their homes are, or how much bling they wear.

    If your definition of success is a corner office with a key to the executive bathroom, well, that’s YOUR success. But Sube, a blacksmith I know, was an executive working for Pfizer who finally got utterly disgusted with what he was doing, disillusioned by the trappings of success. Now he bangs red hot iron with a hammer and is one of the happiest, most successful people I know. He creates works of beauty instead of reams of paper. Does he make the money he once did? Not even close. Is he a failure? To you, perhaps. To look at him, he’s a scruffy, sweaty guy with no hair on his lower arms who hasn’t worn a tie for over ten years (as he proudly puts it). But he’s happier at his forge than he ever was at his desk. To me, that makes him a success.

    People find their own paths to success, and define their own success. For some, enough suffices, for some, enough means ‘more than you have’. And ultimately, success boils down to whether you are happy with your life and your soul is content. If not, then you are not successful, no matter how much you have.

    • balconesfault

      I think that success for many means having enough financial security so that you can plan for your own and your families future in a way that doesn’t constantly leave you susceptible to the whims of decisions made by someone with greater economic power. The GOP has successfully sold this for decades as meaning the heavy hand of government – but these days it is far more likely to be the WalMart that moves in on the Interstate and slashes prices below what you pay your distributors, blowing your legacy family business out of the water … or the real estate developer who buys the strip mall you’ve been renting a shopfront in for 15 years and tells you (a) your lease won’t be renewed, and (b) even if you want to stay to the end of your lease, they’ll be leaving all the other stores vacant as their leases expire, so you’ll slowly become a lone tenant surrounded by a barren parking lot … or the local COC bigwig who makes it very clear that if you’re not donating to the correct candidates, you’re just not going to get a certain kind of business … or the company that tells you that relocation and a significant pay cut is the only way to keep your job in an economy where you know losing your home is only a few months away once the paycheck stops … or the neighborhood you’ve been renting in for decades suddenly undergoing a rapid gentrification and condo-ization, destroying the social network you’ve built to support your family.

      Your Pfizer executive friend probably had enough years of a 6-figure income that he can play at being a blacksmith without any fears of having his ability to feed his family severely hampered if his truck throws a tie-rod. The family that will suddenly have to figure out a way to create a new life because their old ones have no real value to some Donald Trump type out to find the next project to cash in on … they haven’t achieved the American Dream, no matter how “serene” they may be without the 52″ LCD in their living room or a Land Cruiser in their driveway.

    • WaStateUrbanGOPer

      Your post almost exactly expresses my own thoughts on this subject.

      I don’t know the precise date when our culture started to define “success” as the acquisition of a Quadrant Home, a mountain of trivial detritus with which to fill it, and a boxy looking wagonesque vehicle to adorn its driveway– all financed on an enormous pile of debt– but I wish we could somehow transport ourselves back to that moment so that we could collectively scream STOP at our former selves. I suspect that such a time warp would take us back to around 2002.

      Not everyone went in for this sort of stupidity, and even now (by which I mean post-September 2008) many persons who did are unrepentant (Teabaggers, etc.), but I think a large chunk of the people who went in for the whole Home-Ownership-America-cum-SUV-cum-Celebrity-Obsession-cum-Unlimited-Trivial-Gadgets scam could be talked out of it if only they could see a detailed picture of what consequences their wreckless enthrallment to Mammon would have for our economy and our culture.

      The American Dream, so-called, has always been about earning a greater income than the generation that brought you up, and its also always been largely defined by material acquisition, but at least previous generations managed to do all this, however vulgar and shallow– and contemptible– it really was, without having to resort to loans backed by exorbitant interest rates, and without having to resort to a credit card, let alone having to max out four or five, as is common these days.

      I’ve never owned a house or a car, and I never plan on doing so. I still use a flip phone; in fact, I only got my first mobile phone in 2007. I’ve never owned on i-Pod (I have a knock-off version that works just as well), and I’ve had one credit card in my thirteen years as an adult. My happiness– which has been almost consistent throughout my thirty one years– have never, and will never, depend on any of this irrelevant stuff.

  • nhthinker

    It seems that Noah is pointing out that families matter on outcomes and that he thinks its government responsibility to make families matter less.

    Many government attempts to make families matter less have generally had the long term unintended consequence of making more families more dysfunctional and less upwardly mobile and less competitive from a global perspective.

    Too many parents have ignorance and lack of willpower and lack of motivation to curb their own bad habits and do right by their children. Government efforts have emphasized treating the symptoms of the problem and when looked at over the long term-big picture has not improved the percentage of functional families.

    • balconesfault

      Too many parents have ignorance and lack of willpower and lack of motivation to curb their own bad habits and do right by their children. Government efforts have emphasized treating the symptoms of the problem and when looked at over the long term-big picture has not improved the percentage of functional families.

      Yep … wish we were back in the good old days, when the lack of government efforts to provide a more level playing field for all put the onus on parents to be more responsible for their families.

      That after all is not only the best way to improve the percentage of functional families … but to help the largest number of children reach their greatest potential, regardless of the financial circumstances they were born into.

    • Reflection Ephemeral

      It’s funny, conservatives in the US are always going on about how allowing blacks or women to vote, or restricting child labor, or regulating pollutants, or permitting gay marriage, would destroy the family, industry, morality, etc. (Examples of each here: http://www.tnr.com/article/womens-suffrage-and-other-visions-right-wing-apocalypse ).

      So you’d think that conservatives would be acutely aware that there could still be some impact on our lives from our history.

      A brief refresher: here in the US, we enslaved people of African descent for a few centuries, denied most of them basic civil rights for another century, and continue to discriminate against them today. (Substantiation for today’s discrimination here: http://www.redroom.com/blog/tim-wise/black-powers-gonna-get-you-sucka-right-wing-paranoia-and-rhetoric-modern-racism ). That might have led to some damage to culture, habits, family structures, and everything else, one might think.

      As it happens, though, the conservative response to that history is, “we passed a law banning racism like forty years ago already, just stop talking about race! They just need to be more moral and pull themselves up by their bootstraps!”

      This is because US conservatism is about tribalism, not ideology.

      • nhthinker

        Libertarianism is about individualism, not tribalism. Individualism is about personal choices and responsibility.

        Rich and poor make choices- both can be massive failures or massive successes. The rich get more chances to make poor choices.

        I’m open to data… who can point me to a government program that has tangible evidence that it encouraged more two parent families and helped parents to decide to give up more personal luxuries for the benefit of their children?

        • ScienceChick

          In this instance, we’re using the word “tribalism” to mean the point of view that espouses: “Don’t take stuff from *my* group to give to *their* group.” That attitude is a major wellspring of conservative thought.

    • Graychin

      [i]Which of the following young people is more likely to get ahead economically? Young person A grew up in a poor neighborhood. Young person A has the drive and ambition to get ahead. OR
      Young person B grew up in a wealthy neighborhood. Young person B lacks drive and ambition.[/i]

      Regardless of what 78% of respondents had been propagandized to believe, the answer is clearly “B.” Drive and ambition are not sufficient to result in economic success. Not in America. Not any more – if it was ever so.

      There is NO evidence that government attempts to compensate for the disadvantages of poor children (Head Start, for example) “have generally had the long term unintended consequence of making more families more dysfunctional and less upwardly mobile and less competitive from a global perspective.” That’s a “conservative” canard.

    • nhthinker

      Frum’s reflection on Hitchenson has Frum making the two-parent family argument in 1996…

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZRiyk6HZMU

  • Reflection Ephemeral

    The American Dream is a great thing, but it’s silly to say that everyone in every other country lacks the ability to dream or prosper, as Marco Rubio does here. In fact, we’re not that good at social mobility anymore:

    As Jon Chait has pointed out: http://www.tnr.com/blog/jonathan-chait/86141/the-rich-are-different-theyre-luckier

    a child born into the lowest-earning quintile who manages to attain a college degree is less likely to be in the highest-earning quintile than a child born into the top quintile who does not attain a college degree. This is all the more remarkable when you consider that making it to, and through, college is far harder for poor kids than rich kids even at a given level of aptitude. (Two thirds of the kids with average math scores and low-income parents do not attend college, while almost two-thirds of high-income kids with average math scores do.)

    Policies have changed– policies that allow greater concentration of wealth, and less regulation to prevent coming by it unscrupulously– and the reality no longer lives up to our national myths.

  • Frumplestiltskin

    “[America is] the only place in the world where it doesn’t matter who your parents were or where you came from.

    Yeah, up yours Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. So what if you are also countries made up predominantly of immigrants, according to Marco Rubio you don’t even exist…or something. And of course for a very long time in did matter who your parents were and where they came from. Look at all the Anglicized names in the phone book, even today Jewish entertainers take a name straight out of a British peerage book;. John Stewart, Woody Allen, etc. My Chinese wife had to take an Anglicized first name to make her life easier.
    Rubio takes his success, much of it based on luck (if he was born in Idaho there is not a chance in hell he would have been elected Senator from there), and then thinks it applies to everyone.

  • theendisfar

    It is hard to tell the NeoCons from the Socialists here. Not a one of you has any right or authority to dictate what the fictitious “American Dream” is, nor can you elect a person or body to determine that.

    The idea that Gov’t should promote the “American Dream” is simply a way to create CLASSES and the obvious Class Warfare that always comes with them. It appears that there are many here who don’t recognize that being labeled as the Middle Class assumes that there is some Upper Class. Guess what? The Upper Class RULES all lower classes.

    There should only be TWO Classes in a Free Society. Dependent Class and Independent Class. If you are Dependent upon others (a child or invalid), including Gov’t, then you are a SLAVE temporary or not. The opportunity towards Independence should never be blocked instead promoted, and Chronic Dependence should be abhorred.

    Human Domestication (coerced dependence) is Servitude and Serfdom.