American Dream Not American Reality

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

In my Social Work career I spent 37 years working primarily with people in poverty, whether from Race, ethnicity, economic situations, criminal history and/or addiction. In my Psychotherapy practice (part time) my patients were middle to upper class economically and yet as the years have passed my memory of them has faded. Still remaining though, burned into my memory, are the lives of those I met who lived in poverty. We see in this current Presidential election a sharp contrast between the philosophies of the two candidates. One believing in lowering peoples expectations for and the receipt of, what he deems “entitlements”. The other who defends what he calls self-funded programs and championing the Federal Government’s intervention to make health care more accessible. There is, however, one economic/social area where both candidates fully agree and this agreement represents exactly what is wrong with our country.

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, by their words and deeds, both believe fervently in the notion of the “American Dream”. If we look at the history of their lives we can understand how from their perspective, their lives have typified the “America Dream”. Romney was born wealthy, went to the best schools and came from a family that was highly prominent in his community. Obama, though born the child of an unwed mother, had the benefit of her intelligence, in addition to Maternal Grandparents who were relatively well to do. Their lives, though having different arcs, led them both to the point where they are competing for the highest office in the land. Neither man is lying when they extol America as the world’s shining light of opportunity for all, because their own lives bear that out. To me the problem is that reality shows that they are wrong in their belief and in their clinging to the myth of the “American Dream”, they ignore the most important issue of our time, American inequality of opportunity.

This week I read an article by Prof. James Karabel, of the UC Berkeley. Its title was: Grand Illusion: Mobility, Equality and the American Dream.  I believe my many years working both on the front lines of poverty and as an executive in most areas of Social Services I qualify too as an expert on poverty and its scarring effect on people. Then too in my experiences as a psychotherapist I’ve learned something about the human psyche and how it can be negatively affected. So in my own mind at least I believe that I am enough of an expert to state categorically that the professor knows what he is talking about and that I completely agree with him. Professor Karabel writes:

“[T]his cherished view of America is now a myth. The reality is in fact quite the opposite: Family origins matter more in the United States in determining where one ends up in life compared to other wealthy democratic countries. This is a recent development. Studies of social mobility as far back as the 1950s and 1960s showed that rates of movement in the United States were generally comparable to other developed countries. This finding itself challenged the longstanding image of America as exceptionally open, but it is a far cry from today, when the United States rates at or near the bottom in comparative studies of social mobility.

To take just two examples, a study by Jo Blanden and colleagues at the London School of Economics found that a father’s income was a better predictor of a son’s income in the United States than in seven other countries, including Germany, Canada, and the United Kingdom. And a review article by Miles Corak at the University of Ottawa, based on 50 studies of nine countries, found the United States tied with the United Kingdom as having the least social mobility, trailing not only Norway and Denmark but France, Germany, and Canada.”

There are many studies that back Professor Karabel’s thesis. One such from the moderate Pew Research Center states the following in its summary of findings regarding the vitality of the “American Dream”.

“   Those born at the top and bottom of the income ladder are likely to stay there as  adults. More than 40 percent of Americans raised in the bottom quintile of the  family income ladder remain stuck there as adults, and 70 percent remain below  the middle.

    African Americans are more likely to be stuck at the bottom and fall from the middle of the economic ladder across a generation.

The renowned Brookings Institution, which is economically “Centrist” also, did a study on upward mobility in America, which was intertwined with how the reality affected the “American Dream” meme. In it they examined all sources including the Pew Report cited above. Among the Brookings conclusions were:

“What is clear is that in at least one regard American mobility is exceptional: not in terms of downward mobility from the middle or from the top, and not in terms of upward mobility from the middle — rather, where we stand out is in our limited upward mobility from the bottom. And in particular, it’s American men who fare worse than their counterparts in other countries.[16] One study compared the United States with Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the United Kingdom. It found that in each country, whether looking at sons or at daughters, 23 to 30 percent of children whose fathers were in the bottom fifth of earnings remained in the bottom fifth themselves as adults — except in the United States, where 42 percent of sons remained there.”

A New York Times article in January 2012 by Jason DeParle titled: “Harder for Americans to Rise from Lower Rungs” examined the research available and also noted that even many o the Right, like Rick Santorum, were beginning to express concern for this American decline of “Upward Mobility”:

“Benjamin Franklin did it. Henry Ford did it. And American life is built on the faith that others can do it, too: rise from humble origins to economic heights. “Movin’ on up,” George Jefferson-style, is not only a sitcom song but a civil religion. But many researchers have reached a conclusion that turns conventional wisdom on its head: Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe. The mobility gap has been widely discussed in academic circles, but a sour season of mass unemployment and street protests has moved the discussion toward center stage.”

 “One reason for the mobility gap may be the depth of American poverty, which leaves poor children starting especially far behind. Another may be the unusually large premiums that American employers pay for college degrees. Since children generally follow their parents’ educational trajectory, that premium increases the importance of family background and stymies people with less schooling.

At least five large studies in recent years have found the United States to be less mobile than comparable nations. A project led by Markus Jantti, an economist at a Swedish university, found that 42 percent of American men raised in the bottom fifth of incomes stay there as adults. That shows a level of persistent disadvantage much higher than in Denmark (25 percent) and Britain (30 percent) — a country famous for its class constraints. Meanwhile, just 8 percent of American men at the bottom rose to the top fifth. That compares with 12 percent of the British and 14 percent of the Danes.”

At the end of this piece I’ll offer more proof and studies on the desperate state of the “American Dream”, but I think what I’ve presented so far makes the case that the “American Dream” has become more myth than reality. Now I’d like to examine what I think about all of this and why it is mostly absent from the discussions of the issues in this coming election.

Thinking about the breadth of American History and the fact that it is intertwined with racial, ethnic and economic strife throughout, it is amazing that this country, made up of so many ethnicities and races, has been as stable as it has been when compared to other industrialized nations. I contend that this is because a vast majority of the population has bought into the myth of the “American Dream”. This myth where every child can grow up to be famous, rich and President has lowered the discontent of those born on, or near the bottom and filled them with the demonstrably false presence that rising from a lower caste social state can be done only if they try harder. While on the anecdotal level this is true in that many instances can be found of the “rags to riches” story, on the statistical level the truth is that it is a very rare occurrence. As the studies show if you are born at, or near the bottom you tend to remain there.

When “rags to riches” stories occur it is simply because a given individual has been born with superior abilities and/or has had extraordinary luck. As I have mentioned many times on the Turley blog, the Horatio Alger,_Jr. the 19th Century novelist, provided much propaganda for the concept of the “American Dream”, during America’s “Gilded Age” , the great industrial and economic spurt that followed the Civil War and lasted until the end of the 19th Century. Alger’s books contained one overarching theme: The poor boy that with hard work and “pluck” rose from abject poverty to enormous wealth. The fallacy was that in every one of his many novels, the “poor boy” was taken in hand by a wealthy gentleman, who helped his rise and even offered his daughter’s hand in marriage. Nevertheless, to a population made up of the rural poor moving from farms to factory work and of immigrants freeing the chains of European and Asian autocracy, these books had a tremendous influence on their aspirations.

We must understand that after the Civil War killed 600,000 and maimed so many more there were plenty of jobs available during this country’s rise into the Industrial Revolution. Also comparatively at that time the living conditions for most in other countries were characterized by rigid class systems and oppressive governance enforcing the class distinctions. As the 19th Century drew to a close the “American Dream” became entwined in the fabric of American mythology and simultaneously fostered the concept of “American Exceptionalism” that was the main foreign policy feature of “Progressivism”

At this point the “Right” and the “Left” of this country established their main point of agreement, which has lasted until this day. Both sides of the political spectrum accepted the idea that America was a shining land of opportunity for all and exceptional in its system. By both sides of course I’m talking about almost all of the politicians in both parties, in the two party system, which became rigid after Teddy Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose Party” run in 1908. This is ot to say that there weren’t many dissidents to the “American Dream” meme, but those dissidents were marginalized in the discussion by the press and the developing media.

So here we are today with evidence that the “American Dream” is in shambles and yet the Presidential Candidates and the majority of people supporting both parties still mouth the myth of America as the land of the greatest opportunity for all. This is destructive, not only because it isn’t rue, but because it prevents any real discussion of the problems we face in this country if we are to begin to return to its purported ideals of opportunity for all. How many of you reading this can say that your own lives were not touched by privilege of some sort? The “American Dream” is in my opinion a chimerical myth, with little substance behind it. Rising from importune circumstance though has always been the lot of humanity, though in our distant past it did depend initially on brawn and/or brains. What we are seeing in America today is the diminution of opportunity and the collapse of our once robust middle class. That as a nation we are so inculcated with this myths that even if a politician had the temerity to tell the truth about the eroding “American Dream” she/he would find their career buried under opprobrium.

I write this because of my anger at the continuing failure of this country to address the real problems endemic in preventing our society from being one of relatively equal opportunity for all. “All men are created equal” has never meant that there aren’t some among us who have greater ability than others. To me it has always meant that most people should at least have a fairly equal chance to achieve their aspirations dependent on their innate abilities. Is that too much to ask?

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

NOTE: The picture used up front is of Horatio Alger, Jr. Those who have read my writing here will see that this is a continuing concern of mine and consists of much of what I have written. I would also recommend Gene Howington’s Propaganda series as providing a view of how this issue continues to be hidden from our political debate. Some links backing my premise:

91 thoughts on “American Dream Not American Reality”

  1. Juris,

    You asked, roughly, hoe do we know who is telling the truth. There are fact checkers, os which you are familiar.
    You can also find those who fully support one line and compare what they sey with the other side statements of facgt.

    Then try to decide who you believe most.s

    Here’s one from my side, which offers here a list of 24 “myths” that Ryan said in his 40 minutes of the debate with Biden. With rebuttals of course.

    Just to end with some humor, do all this “program” and you cna launch yourself locally as a pundit. Extra cash, and maybe national fame in the offing.

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