Betraying the American Dream

When I was growing up, the accepted description of America was “land of opportunity.” It was commonly believed that the American Dream could be attained by anyone willing to work hard; social mobility was the name of the game.

Knowing that poverty isn’t necessarily permanent is hugely important in a capitalist system. Inequalities are inevitable, but they need not be paralyzing, they need not engender the sorts of simmering resentments that lead to social unrest, because they are seen as temporary and (fairly or unfairly) a reflection of the effort and entrepreneurship of the individual.

We are beginning to see what happens when it becomes apparent that Americans can no longer work themselves into the middle class. Thanks to short-sighted and mean-spirited public policies, such social mobility as previously characterized our economic system (it was probably never as obtainable as national mythology had it) is largely a thing of the past.

In a column addressing the need for high quality early childhood education, Gail Collins put it bluntly: “We have no bigger crisis as a nation than the class barrier. We’re near the bottom of the industrialized world when it comes to upward mobility. A child born to poor parents has a pathetic chance of growing up to be anything but poor. This isn’t the way things were supposed to be in the United States. But here we are.”

In his recent book on inequality, Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz underlined the current lack of social mobility in America–and its unpleasant consequences.

We have a problem, and it isn’t temporary, isn’t a result of the recent economic downturn. Social scientists have documented the characteristics of stable democracies–the attitudes and institutions that keep societies from erupting, that strengthen the social fabric rather than tearing it. A perception that the government “plays fair” and a belief in opportunity for advancement–a belief that effort and diligence will be rewarded–are among them.

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama proposed two measures–universal access to preschool and raising the minimum wage–that would begin, however modestly, to address the problem. There is ample research connecting early childhood education to later economic well-being. There is equally persuasive research rebutting the proposition that a higher minimum wage means fewer jobs. (The latter proposition seems so logical, I used to believe it was self-evident; a copious amount of research, however, shows otherwise.)

The “usual suspects” met the President’s proposals with their usual screams of “socialism.” Those usual suspects, however, should rethink their support of the status quo. When poor people lose hope–when the belief in the possibility of bettering their condition disappears, and they face the fact that social mobility is rapidly becoming a myth and the American Dream is out of reach–they become people with nothing to lose. Eventually, they take to the streets and threaten the comfortable.

What’s that old line? Pigs get fed, but hogs get slaughtered.


  1. In his now famous Vanity Fair article, in May, 2011, Stiglitz offered the following conclusion: “…there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live. Throughout history, this is something that the top 1 percent eventually do learn. Too late.”

  2. I think it’s insulting to think the top 1% income earners don’t understand the value of the lower 99% of income earners.

  3. As previously stated:

    A book exists called “The Betrayal of the American Dream”, one crucial question in this book is; “Do we want to continue purchasing inexpensively manufactured products from Asian factories or do we want to pay a real living wage to American workers in American factories”. I really like the Apple products I use; however it irks me that on the reverse side of the device it states. Designed in California and assembled in China. I would prefer it to say, designed and manufactured in the “United States of America” yes the price would increase, but like everything else “If you want it, you’ll pay for it”.

    It is still the “Land of Opportunity” (depends on your national origin)

    1. The average professional in the US earns approximately 2 to 3 times more (annual salary) than her/his European counterpart.
    2. Gasoline in the US is half the cost of Petrol in Europe.
    3. Food in the grocery store is less here than in Europe.
    4. Consumer electronics, TV’s etc are less here.
    5. Booze (at the liquor store level) is less here. In fact, the 21st at 56th & Illinois. Wine/Spirits are less than all the duty free stores I’ve browsed in Europe.
    6. Internet with unlimited access. UK limits are 2 – 5 GB per month on the plan, additional fees for exceeding the limit.
    7. Automobiles are less expensive in the US, when you can find a direct comparison. My last trip to the UK, we rented an Audi A5 (average US cost approx. $38,500.00. Average UK cost 40,000.00 pounds about $64,000.00 in US currency)

    On the flip side:
    1. Restaurants are more expensive here. Probably, due to operating and staff costs.
    2. Live sports events are more expensive here (NFL, MLB and NBA etc)

    Many areas in the work force allow employee’s to climb the ladder (without professional credentials) to a higher level based on practical experience, unless a license/state registration is required to practice said profession etc.

  4. An interesting and significant book on that is “Plutocrats” by Chrystia Freeland. Stiglitz has written a great deal, also, and is totally on top of this issue.

  5. George, have you ever lived abroad? I have and most of your list is just not accurate. Living there and visiting the UK is NOT the same.

  6. Dear ALG …
    I’m an Ex-Pat and visit every year.

    I’m an Engineer and have constant contact
    with firm’s in the UK and know what Salary
    I could expect etc.

    Gas here (Indiana) is currently about $3.50
    per Gal. UK is currently 1.5pounds per Litre.
    Approx 4 Litres to the Gal, 6 pounds per Gal.
    Current exchange about $1.5 per pound =
    $9.00 per Gal in the UK.

    Average $300.00 TV is 300 pounds in the UK
    which = $450

    Heathrow Airport Duty free for makers mark
    bourbon is $10.00 more that my local Liquor
    store here.

    Do I need to go on ?

  7. Hey George, I bow to your expat status.

    Gas in Indiana is higher than most places in the country. Here in AZ it’s 3:35 a gallon and that’s significantly higher then it’s been since November. When you guys were paying 3.30, we were paying 2.99.
    Gasoline has always been higher in Europe but you have alternatives (except in the UK, where my husband grew up). While we lived in Germany, we did not own a vehicle. Really didn’t need one except for our weekly trips to the grocery store. We rode buses and took trains even to the airport. That feat is impossible in Indy or most urban areas in this country. Big oil rules this country like no other.

    Heathrow (brand new airport) is one of the most expensive airports on the planet along with living in London or Paris or Sydney. You can’t compare Indy with London because there is no comparison at all. Indy’s one million residents vs London’s 8 million cannot compare at all.

    Enjoy your ‘cheap’ stay.

  8. ALG…how exactly does “big oil” rule this country? Is it because it is not taxed to the point where people don’t want to use it, like in Europe? Is it because our geography and population density is much different than that of Europe’s?

    You say we cannot compare Indy to London, and yet you compare America to Europe. I would love to hear your logic behind this.

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