Thursday, March 1, 2012

Keeping the Dream Alive

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." These words form the backbone of how Americans view human rights. However, many Americans must wonder if they hold true today. In the 2006 movie 'Amazing Grace' Thomas Clarkson (played by Rufus Sewell) tells William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) that "what we say of the slave is true of the worker in the field; the weaver; the miner: shouldn't they be free to prosper too?" In 18th century Britain, such workers were theoretically "free to prosper", but in reality they were in bondage to their masters who had wealth, power, and influence. In America, the "land of the free", we are increasingly falling into a lack of freedom to prosper. What we have done over the last 30 years is shift national problems (welfare, income inequality, poverty and education in this particular case) over to states, local governments, or individuals. Gone are the days when we had one of the best primary education systems in the world, and our 'war on poverty' under Lyndon B. Johnson is all but disappeared. We are taking away the helping hands necessary to help people rise from rags to riches. 

             The focus of my post is going to be on the third right listed: pursuit of happiness. Are all Americans free to pursue happiness, or is it just those who have money and power to begin with? I argue that America is more unequal now than at any time since the Gilded Age (1870-1900), and that this inequality and subsequent crippling of social mobility does not give every American equal opportunity to pursue happiness in whatever way they might choose. I also will critique many of the Republican party's proposed "reforms" and "solutions" primarily because I am saddened by my own party's lack of true understanding of the problem.

                On September 13, 2011 the New York Times published an article online on, what Harvard economics professor, Lawrence Katz, calls the 'Lost Decade'. The title of the article was "Soaring Poverty Casts Light on 'Lost Decade'". The article cites a Census Bureau report stating that in 2010 another 2.6 million Americans fell below the poverty line, and 46.2 million people now live below the official poverty line (for a family of four the poverty line is $22,314; for a single person it is $11,344). The total number is the highest in the 52-year history that the Bureau has published the data. The official unemployment rate is 8.3% which means that roughly 25.9 million Americans do not have a job and are wholly dependent on state unemployment benefits (checks, food stamps, and medical assistance) for survival. Dig just a little deeper and you will find that state and local governments are reducing spending on these social welfare programs that so many are so dependent upon. So what does all of this have to do with the pursuit of happiness?

                I would imagine that, for the vast majority of unemployed Americans they do not feel like they are able to pursue happiness. My dad is going back to school to study social work, and, after reading Amazing Grace by Jonathon Kozol, he noted that by middle school most children in poorer schools are aware of the inequality in the system. They realize that their life is not as good as it could be, and that the school they go to, the home they live in, and the community they are a part of is tragically neglected. By the time they reach high school (should they even make it to high school) they become angry cynics of the system. 

            In the last 40 years the real value of a standard welfare package has decreased by 26%. And welfare is no longer provided for a family or individual until they obtain a job; it is cut off after a certain period of time (usually five years, four for my home state of Michigan) which forces many Americans to take jobs in the most readily available positions (i.e, cashier, janitor, fast-food). These jobs are low paying and provide little added benefit beyond work experience. And these are the fastest growing jobs in the nation. Many middle-income jobs have been outsourced or are now being done by robots or computers. Now, many workers in low-skill, low-wage jobs have little hope of moving up into higher skill jobs unless they go off to college or a technical school.

                In a recent TIME Magazine article (November 14, 2011) Rana Foroohar points out that by funding public education with public money, and providing universal healthcare paid for by the state (as opposed to private insurers and employers) Europeans have ensured that the best and brightest can rise, and those who have average wages do not fall into poverty because of medical emergencies (in the U.S. 1 in 3 people cycle in and out of poverty every year as a result of medical crises). Studies show that job growth and income mobility can be determined by how well a society's education system keeps up with technological change. Contrast American education with Northern European and South Korean models and we hardly stand a chance. In Finland teaching is an honor because Finland filters out roughly 90% of undergrads who apply for the teaching program, and requires teachers to have at least a master's degree and rewarded with high pay (between 40 and 60 thousand dollars). In South Korea the government has actually had to mandate that schools close by 10 p.m., and South Korean children are in school for 220 days; 35 more than the American schools (which still runs on summer harvest schedules for farmers where only 3% of the population is employed).  In America some inner-city public school teachers make less than the poverty line salary for a family of four. Public school funding (funding for technology, facilities, teachers pay, etc.) is paid for by property taxes, which doesn't generate enough revenue for many inner-city schools because the property taxes for that school district are so low. And our high-school graduation rates have fallen gradually since they peaked in 1970.

                In crafting the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson was critiquing a government that was obstructing these rights from its colonial citizens. Today, we have a government that is doing much the same; perhaps unintentionally, but by blocking necessary reforms we have allowed these downward trends to continue. I firmly believe that Republicans must bear the brunt of the blame for this. I also wish that I did not have to feel that way towards my own party (rest assured I am a Republican; just a frustrated one). Republicans do have an answer for lack of social mobility, and it is not less government involvement. Rather it is more funding for education, research & development, science and technology, and better infrastructure,. All of these were put in place largely by Dwight Eisenhower.  

                When I watch the Republican debates now it is quite horrifying just how unaware of the consequences the candidates are towards their own policies and past actions. Newt Gingrich wants to get people off unemployment checks and food stamps and into jobs saying something to the effect that he wants to give people the "dignity of a paycheck". While feeling like you've earned something by hard work and even sacrifice can be dignifying, providing for a family is probably more dignifying. Rick Santorum was the author of so-called 'welfare reform' which allocated block grants of money to the states to use for entitlement spending which, while it has helped reduce the growing deficit in the federal budget, has also limited the time people can stay on welfare, and restricts the states to a certain budget for welfare programs. And what is probably most upsetting is that Republican politicians are just opposed to the kinds of reform we need to help impoverished and lower middle-income families achieve the American dream.  

               This is what Republicans imply when they propose "bold" reforms; taking away the helping hand of government. And, even though they would deny this to their graves, they do succumb to that old stereotypes that the poor are poor because they are lazy. That may be going a bit far, but it does show itself every so often in conversations with Republicans. In one interview ex-presidential hopeful, Herman Cain said of the Occupy Wall Street movement, "If you don't have a job, don't blame the banks; blame yourself". Let me rephrase that: if you don't have a job, then you are to blame; it's your own dumb fault! Now Herman Cain may be one extreme example, but I think he was just brave (or un-empathetic) enough to voice what many Republicans probably think about blaming Wall Street for our economic woes.

                Here is the link to a New York Times article on the fiscal troubles of Rhode Island; a perfect case in point for much of what I have covered so far in this post: island bankruptcy&st=cse&scp=1. The message can be summed up with Ms. Raimondo's answer to the gentlemen who said that Rhode Island would be "reneging on a moral obligation" by enacting her reforms: I would ask you, is it morally right to do nothing, and not provide services to the state’s most vulnerable citizens? Yes, sir, I think this is moral. Rhode Island is mostly in trouble because of its overgenerous pension system; a system which is skewed away from those who really need it.

             So I began this post by asking the question: are Americans free to pursue happiness? To rephrase the question: can anyone (regardless of the circumstances they are born into) achieve the American dream (that life gets better from one generation to the next, and that anyone can go from rags to riches)? My answer is that the American dream is being threatened because the kinds of social safety nets (welfare) necessary to keep the impoverished afloat during hard times, and the lack of quality education available to all people are no longer assured. States are going bankrupt because of pension plans for public sector workers (such as police officers and firefighters), many public schools across the nation are dysfunctional because of poor teaching and management, inner-city children can't get to the best public schools because they're too far away so they spend their time in schools that just encourage slothful behavior, and all the while the wealth gap widens between the top 1% and the bottom 20%. As we have seen, education is probably the most crucial engine of social mobility-the crux of the American dream, and Fareed Zakaria, in a TIME Magazine article points out that the U.S. has a 25% high school drop-out rate. We once possessed the highest college-graduation rates, but now other countries are catching up and overtaking us. In order for people to be free to prosper they need to have access to good education and social safety nets during hard times. The former is being denied to a large minority of the population, and the latter is suddenly and terrifyingly no longer a guarantee. For my own party I pray sincerely that they will wake up and understand this.

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