Restoring The American Dream

This article is more than 8 years old.

We have just entered the second week of the massive government shutdown. By now, we’ve heard countless anecdotes about furloughed workers and vacationing families being turned away at the gates of the shuttered National Parks.

But there’s another group, one that we haven’t heard as much about, but for whom things are particularly bleak.

Give up?

The shutdown is hitting the nation’s poor disproportionately hard.

Of course, it’s not like it was rosy picture for the nation’s poor two weeks ago. The shutdown is just exacerbating an already dire situation.

The Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), for example, is running on the fumes of a short-term allocation. According to reporting by Time’s Swampland blog, the nearly $7 billion program, which supplies food vouchers, breastfeeding support and baby formula for nearly 9 million low income mothers and their infants, “is having to rely on $125 million in contingency funds from the USDA to continue operating throughout the month.”

Douglas Greenaway, the president of the National WIC Association, told Time, “This [shutdown] has created a level of uncertainty in the lives of already vulnerable families.”

Head Start, which provides wide-ranging educational support for some of the nation’s poorest kids, is also impacted by the shutdown. More than 20 programs in 11 states have lost funding, affecting as many as 19,000 at-risk children.

Of course, it’s not like it was rosy picture for the nation’s poor two weeks ago. The shutdown is just exacerbating an already dire situation.

The national poverty rate is stuck at 15 percent for the second year in a row, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That means 46.5 million Americans are living at or below the poverty line.

The same day those census figures were released, Forbes Magazine announced that the wealthiest Americans got even wealthier this year. The 2013 Forbes 400 List — an annual ranking of American billionaires — found the richest among us increased their combined net worth this year to $2.02 trillion, up $300 billion from 2012.

Economist Tyler Cowen, author of “Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation,” contends that wealth inequality in America will soon become permanent, predicting that the top 20 percent will live in wealth, and the rest will live in a state at or near working poverty.

There’s no point in writing another screed against our loss of upward mobility and the death of a true, hard-work based meritocracy. The digital streets are littered with angry essays sounding the alarm on inequality in the U.S. I think it’s time for a different approach.

We have to convince people to restore the American Dream.

The Industrial Revolution was of great importance to the economic development of this country. But perhaps even more significant -- culturally and economically — was our common belief in the American Dream: The idea that anyone could “make it” if they worked hard enough. Realization of the dream was initially defined as doing better than your parents. But over time, the dream morphed. It came to mean wealth, comfort and social status. Everyone bought into this, rich and poor alike.

The last 30 years have demonstrated, however, that collectively pursuing the new American Dream has led to policy, regulation and markets that lock people either into wealth or struggle.

A better dream is to create a country, once again, where everyone who wants to -- regardless of birth, social class or circumstances — can rise.


A scene near the "Occupy Seattle" encampment in downtown Seattle's Westlake Park, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
A scene near the "Occupy Seattle" encampment in downtown Seattle's Westlake Park, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

The “everyone” piece changes things a little. It requires regulatory and taxation policy, income distribution practices in private companies and by shareholders, and approaches to education all re-focused on creating blanket upward mobility.

When we play with our nation’s economy, the way Congress is now, people invariably fall on hard times. But what we don't seem to grasp that it is much harder and much more expensive to help them rise again than it is to help keep them from falling in the first place. Want to cut entitlements and government spending? Here's a golden opportunity. Prevention, after all, is cheaper than detention.

There will be trade-offs. You won’t get as rich if you "make it," and some of what you don’t earn will go to helping others be less poor. Some of what you do earn will, too.

This “shared rising” dream isn’t new. It was, in fact, the real American Dream of the 20th Century before it was corrupted by consumerism and greed. It also includes people who were left out the first time around, especially people of color.

The obvious challenge here is getting those who benefit from the current system to change their beliefs. Hard to do without incentives. Here are just a few: stability; the moral call to equality; the need to keep entitlements from consuming federal and state budgets; and the need for a prosperous consumer base for future products.

We could go a long way, however, just by convincing those disenfranchised by the current system to restore the dream. Many people have awakened to inequality, but have not drawn the line back to what we have been building our country toward. Who doesn’t want to be the one to strike it rich? “Strike it middle class,” just doesn’t have the same ring.

Change of heart, or change of hope, is never easy.

Change of heart, or change of hope, is never easy. Turning our focus to shared rising requires first believing that everyone deserves to rise. Historically, we have not been quick to believe such an idea. The time, however, has come. We are a diverse people, and we are teetering on the edge of locking in not a society of shared rising, but one of separation and socioeconomic divisions that will destabilize us, and could threaten the entire "American experiment."

A restored American Dream would change things. It's time to return to our roots. It's time to change the conversation.


This program aired on October 8, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.



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