The Fading of the American Dream: a Tale of Two Nations

You may have seen this morning’s AP report on growing poverty in America.:

Four out of 5 U. S, adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream.

I found the report disturbing, but not unexpected, as I’ve done a lot of reading on the subject over the last several years.  Things aren’t going well for us these days on so many fronts, but foremost, economically.  This isn’t the America I grew-up in.  Nothing is perfect, but I think of that world of the early 60s as just maybe our high water mark.

Take crime, for example: In 1963, there were only 18 arrests for drugs per 100,000 people.  Our jails held far fewer people, but if you were convicted, you went to jail.  We still had a lot of work to do when it came to civil rights and feminism was just coming into its genesis, but they were underway with their promise of inclusion into full citizenship.  The Cold War was almost palpable, and while none of us would wish its return,  ironically it may have fueled our energy,  propelling us into space.

What makes things hard to swallow in difficult times like these, however, is the growing gap between rich and poor.  What may surprise you is that, in sheer numbers, Whites are the majority poor, confirmed by the government’s own data, with 76% of Whites likely to experience economic insecurity (job-loss,  or a year or more of dependence on government aid, or income 15% below the poverty line) by age 60.  White-mother headed homes now equal those among Blacks.  Overall, the number of poor in America stands at a staggering 46.2 million. Things are still difficult for minorities, but the biggest jump in poverty is among Whites.

In contrast, the well-off are doing better than ever, with 1% possessing 50% of the nation’s wealth.  Since 1993, this 1% has seen a 58% increase in that wealth.  Following the downturn of 2008, it has experienced 93% of the income gains.  We are, in short, in danger of becoming two nations, or of those few who have, and have it abundantly, and the many who barely make ends meet, or are without work, or in danger of losing their work.

Increasingly, this confers not only economic disparity, but cultural dislocation in education, politics, and even social and intellectual values.  It decides where you live, the schools your children attend, and even your personal well-being, as poverty is the primary instigator of crime.  In this rare moment of American social history, many Whites now find themselves in the same realm of exclusion from opportunity as minorities.  When it comes to Affirmative Action, it strikes me that the new poverty calls for a redefining of its premises, or the consideration of economic disadvantage and not soley race.

Certainly, we live in a changing world where a global economy has shrunk the market for our domestic exports and we’ve experienced a sharp decline in our manufacturing base as a consequence.  When I grew up, you could reasonably expect to land a job with a steel mill, auto manufacturer, or in a coal mine for good wages, pensions, and the like, if you didn’t go to college.

Another factor exacerbating inequality is living in an information age that posits a market value on sophisticated skills that are often bred in a nurturing context of means, family stability, the right schools and colleges, and the cultivation of a network of those with influence.   We’re talking then about a wholly different lifestyle for those with means.

Like most of our family members, my father was a leather worker.  We weren’t well-off, but we had sufficient to make our way in a world without food stamps.  With the loss of domestic shoe manufacturing to other countries, it’s a world now relegated to the back recesses of memory.  I’ll not give you a litany of lost industries from textiles to furniture, for example, and their contribution to the retreating American dream.

Nobody puts the American economic malaise better than the New Yorker‘s George Packer in his must read, The Unwinding (2013):

If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you have spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding. You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape—the farms of the Carolina Piedmont, the factories of the Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, California schools.”

Lately the President has returned to emphasizing economic issues.  He envisions creating “a ladder of opportunity for all.” He wants to shrink the income gap.  I don’t doubt his sincerity, but is this simply a euphemism for government throwing more money at the problem, or perhaps an innuendo of Marxism with its inherent penchant to restructure the classes?

Money bailouts haven’t helped us before, though it did save the auto industry and the banks.  On the other hand, Libertarians favor deregulation.  Last time I looked, it got us into trouble and we’re still trying to right our balance following the Great Recession of 2008.  Some think focusing on equal opportunity rather than income redistribution is the ticket.  Good arguments can be had both ways.

But the President is surely right about closing the income gap, however it’s done, and most of us everyday folks are probably in lock-step with his goal, though we may differ as to method.   As Charles Murphy points out in his trenchant Coming Apart, we are witnessing America’s increasing bifurcation into two classes, rich and poor:  “…the divergence into these separate classes, if it continues, will end what has made America America.”  Murphy’s thesis is that America is being torn apart, not by race, but by class, and I agree.

The sad thing is, nobody really knows what to do.  In the meantime, what can be worse than to lose faith in your own future?

–rj

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About RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.
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