The American Dream and the Ghost of Mobility

As Americans, we’re a remarkably hopeful people.  A belief that, no matter where you start, you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps, work hard, and plant the posts of your picket fence, is fundamental to our identity.  But, while we do lack the rigid class constrictions of Western Europe, the truth is that upward economic mobility is fundamentally unattainable for most Americans today.  The road to real economic opportunity is a long one, but it starts with a reorganizing of our priorities.

To be sure, the economic downturn has set us back, forcing families across the country to retrench and further dimming many individuals’ prospects of finding a job that pays a living wage.  But, while it certainly hasn’t helped, the collapse of the American Dream was not caused by the events of fall 2008.  Rather, the events of fall 2008 were caused by the collapse of the American Dream.  As of 2006, the average income for the richest .01% of Americans was 976 times the average income of the bottom 90% of Americans.  This gap had been trending upward for more than three decades, reaching a peak that was higher than even the years immediately before the great depression.  This shouldn’t be surprising, though, considering that despite tremendous growth in stock market wealth and GDP, real average earnings in 2008 were lower than they had been 30 years prior.  The story that these figures tell, of an America in which a very small number of people have become very wealthy while the overwhelming majority have seen no appreciable increase in standard of living, is important to remember as we grapple with the overarching causes of the downturn.  This type of inequality runs directly counter to our values, and, as we’ve now seen, it is fundamentally unsustainable.

Invigorating economic mobility can happen at a policy level, but we must first lay the groundwork at a cultural level.  We can achieve this by shifting our focus towards indicators that measure the way people actually live their lives, such as underemployment, purchasing power, and real wage growth, and away from big picture indicators, such as the stock market and GDP growth.  We can also begin to think differently about our economic goals, such as moving towards setting a living wage, which ensures that working people have a decent standard of living, rather than a minimum wage, which merely sets a floor on how poorly people can be paid.  This type of reprioritization is not only crucial for reviving our belief in the American Dream, but it is also a prerequisite for creating a new foundation of prosperity that will not collapse under the weight of inequality again in the future.

Read more at The Opportunity Agenda website.

Tags: economic justice, jobs, mobility, Opportunity, Labor (all tags)

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