Of Dreams, and Redeeming Them

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Today, obviously, is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

There are a lot of things I thought about writing about on this day–my personal struggle with how little connection there is between the man and this day, for so many; my efforts to raise my children in the shadow of that dream (not ‘his’ dream, because it must be ours); reflections on these 50 years since the March on Washington…

But I settled on another dream, and what threatens it, and how quickly we like to forget that Dr. King spoke of not just a dream of racial equality but of economic opportunity, prosperity for all, and an end to the crushing poverty that, while certainly not equally distributed, harms all it touches.

I recently read Hedrick Smith’s Who Stole the American Dream, a book so discouraging, really, that I had to make myself finish it, even though it’s compelling and exhaustive and extremely well-written.

It’s a book that I hated to explain to my Sam, when he read the title and asked what it meant.

But we can’t avert our eyes, here. The evidence is clear that we are witnessing a centralization of power and an inequality of resources not unprecedented–the current ‘wage premium’ for those with at least a Bachelor’s degree mirrors the divide of the 1920s, so there is certainly historical precedent–but undeniably damaging.

The American Dream is eroding, unraveling, not just for those at the bottom of the economic hierarchy, but, increasingly, for all but those at the top.

Regular readers will recognize that a lot of my writing these days (and more to come) has revolved around these themes: student loans and the decreasing democracy of financial aid, the need for new economic policies and approaches to restore the position of the middle class, the dangerous risk shifts that imperil economic security. I’ve been increasingly obsessed, I guess, with these social, political, and economic trends, and that spills over into what I share here.

Today’s post, then, is my effort to pull together some of the insights from Smith’s book that, in light of Dr. King’s exhortations, I see as most urgent. Tomorrow, I hope to spark some conversation about what it will take, in today’s context, to really build a movement to redeem the full vision Dr. King so presciently laid out, not just of children of different races sitting together, but of an economy that delivers dignity and hope and comfort…an American dream of real equality of opportunity, the way we have never–not in 1963 or 2014 or 1776–known.

  • There is no guarantee this ends well: We’re not just going through a tough economic cycle. We’re not just experiencing a rough patch in terms of political partisanship. As a quote cited in the prologue of the book spells out, “Civilizations die of disenchantment. If enough people doubt their society, the whole venture falls apart” (p. xi, attributed to John W. Gardner). And that’s where we are, right? My kids’ hero, Abraham Lincoln, knew that we couldn’t survive a divided nation, and we are divided today, not just ‘red/blue’ state, but rich and poor, ‘the United States works’ v. ‘there is no American dream for me’. This may not just be a phase. It may be the beginning of the end. If there is anything that should be keeping us all up at night, it is this: our nation is not destined to succeed. If we want it to, we have to make it happen.
  • It’s getting worse: I could cite statistics from virtually any page of Smith’s book that would underscore this point (which is one of the reasons it’s so valuable), but here’s one that really gets me: Between 2002-2007, the top 1% reaped 2/3 of the nation’s entire economic gains. In 2010, the first full year of the economic recovery, the top 1% captured 93% of the nation’s gains. That’s really inconceivable, in terms of the scale of the devastation it is wreaking on people’s lives, and also on people’s belief in this whole political experiment of our society.
  • These economic trends are not ‘natural’: Smith relies heavily on Germany’s experience to highlight the very different outcomes that result from different policy choices. Germany has seen a much lower unemployment rate during the recession, a much less significant loss in its manufacturing industries, and a much small growth in inequality…not because they have been subject to radically different economic cycles or forces, but because they have chosen different paths, that come with different consequences. Lest some conclude that there’s something in German ‘culture’ (or maybe the water?) that leads to greater equality, Smith also highlights outcomes from the ‘Great Compression’, a period of relative classlessness in U.S. history (post-war), when a rising tide really did lift all boats. And then he traces the policy choices that unraveled that structure.
  • We’re not handling the risk shift well: One of the points that Smith makes well is how inferior the ‘new safety net’ (largely composed of individual approaches that shift responsibility onto consumers, like 401(k)s) are, in providing for Americans’ well-being. We have to stop pretending that unequal outcomes are, somehow, equal–that it doesn’t matter how people finance college, if they just go, or that incentives to save for your own retirement are the same as being assured them. The Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, people, and we have to stop pretending. “The burden shift has turned the traditional definition of the American Dream ‘on its ear'” (p. 89).
  • Coalitions have their limits: Social workers like to think that we can make common cause with anyone. And, indeed, we have an ethical obligation not to unduly demonize even our most ardent political opponents. But, given the increasing evidence that, today, the fates of ‘Main Street’ and Wall Street diverge, we can’t build tents so big that we’re missing the ways in which our supposed allies are working against us, or at least perpetuating systems that are.
  • We need to tell honest stories about ourselves: The American dream can’t be so vague and so distorted that it loses all meaning. But, today, that’s usually how we talk about it, because it lets us pretend that it’s still really functioning. Instead, “the view that American is the land of opportunity doesn’t entirely square with the facts” (p. 65, attributed to Isabel v. Sawhill of the Brookings Institution). Young people in the ‘old Europe’ economies of Norway, France, Germany, and Denmark, among others, have a better chance of moving up than those in the U.S. That’s not who we like to think we are.

We don’t do a great job, today, acknowledging how far we fall short of the Dream of racial integration and equality, but I would argue that we are more willing to acknowledge that failing, at least in that we identify that as a dream to which we need to continue to aspire, unlike a vision of economic equality, which we largely try to fool ourselves into thinking is just a part of our political ‘DNA’.

In other words, because we pretend that we’ve ‘got this’, when it comes to economic opportunity and equality, we don’t even really know where the goalposts are, in order to recognize how much farther we have to go.

This Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we must start by claiming all of our dreams.

So that we can set out to live them.

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