America’s Broken Bootstraps

"A democracy ... must recognize political, economic and social distinctions, but it must also withdraw its consent whenever these discriminations show any tendency to excessive endurance." - Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life

When at the last-minute bequest of his boss my friend from college changed our casual catch-up drink into a black tie dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, I wasn't exactly perturbed -- a little up-tick in luxury never hurt anyone. And as I daintily stepped into the sleek black chauffeured Mercedes he sent to pick me up, peering out of the tinted windows as we flew up Park Avenue, I thought to myself, 'I could get used to this.'

I didn't know until I arrived that the event was being held to honor two CEO/Philanthropists who happen to be huge scholarship donors to colleges across the country. The irony didn't hit me until the Latino server -- a senior citizen with a limp -- carefully placed a steaming plate of filet mignon in front of me. Lifting the fork to my lips, I surveyed the 500 or so well-heeled attendees and noticed that not one of them seemed to take notice of the people serving them their dinners.

As the generosity of the honorees was caroled throughout the huge room by various speakers, I registered the presence of what has slowly but surely become the two main slices of American life: the very rich and the poor, with the possibility for upward mobility for people like me -- not to mention my dinner server -- dissolving into that widening gap.

The numbers are clear and utterly shocking: between 1979 and 2000 the real income of households in the bottom 20 percent grew by 6.4 percent while that of households in the top fifth grew by 70 percent. Income of the top 1 percent grew in that time frame by 184 percent.

American Dream: from fact to fiction

In the '70s, the ability for a person to move up began to slip because the economic growth and development spurred by World War II downshifted. Add to that the creeping in of globalization starting in the '80s, and by the time we got to the '90s, overall relative mobility slipped by 2 percent.

That may not seem like a lot, but economists say it's really bad news considering that the '90s enjoyed the best economy our country had seen since thirty years prior. In other words, even if people were getting a bigger paycheck, they were still stuck in the same societal position. Two recent studies concluded that "the persistence in inequality is about 50 percent higher than previously thought" (meaning a person's class status is harder to break out of) and even more troubling, between 1973 and 2000, the bottom 90 percent of taxpayers saw their average real income fall by 7 percent. The reality of "upward mobility" is that fiction has replaced what used to be the fact upon which American life was based.

Admittedly, I'm a Horatio Alger apologist. I grew up in a lower/middle working class part of Buffalo, N.Y., but I was lucky enough to be raised by a mother who scraped together enough money to send my sister and me to the best high school in the city and two of the best colleges in the country. In short, she -- and by extension me -- viewed a top-notch education as tantamount to a successful, fruitful life.

The problem that the dinner at the Waldorf illuminated for me is our conservative government's assault on that institution. Allowing students to benefit from the largesse of wealthy people is a wonderful thing, and for many of us, the only way we got through college.

However, increasing dependency on scholarships as the only chance to get higher education is indicative of the lack of a level playing field in our country where education is concerned -- and it's not a situation that's going to be improving any time soon.

The biggest obstacle: lack of equal quality education

The Bush administration's signature program, No Child Left Behind, started off as a step in the right direction toward accountability and improved teaching methods. But the devolution from federal control of the program to cash-strapped states (under the guise of "state and community freedom") negates virtually all of the positive aspects of the program.

Then there's the prickly issue of race. The New York City arm of NPR recently did a report about education in New York and determined that out of 150,000 special education students currently in the city's school system, more than half of them were black, when blacks alone comprise just one-third of the city's students. That atrocious disproportion clearly suggests that there's something wrong with this picture.

Minority students, even when not slapped with the disabled label, are still starting way behind, because in most cases, they go to schools with fewer resources than those of their wealthier contemporaries (being that school funding is determined in large part by local property taxes). Sprinkle in the incompetence and poor management that was supposed to have been fixed by No Child Left Behind, and obviously the notion of a good education and equal opportunities has met more than a few roadblocks.

But let's say that industrious young people do manage to claw their way through the school system and are poised to move on to college. Higher education, instead of being the safe investment it once was, is starting to resemble a game of black-jack. The Bush administration recently continued its assault on financial aid by rolling back Pell grants -- the main government subsidy supporting poorer students.

On top of that, these days it's nearly impossible to get any sort of decently paying job, particularly in the white-collar sector, not to mention advance up the socio-economic ladder, without a college degree -- higher education has been called a "luxury-priced necessity."

And fittingly, it's the wealthiest members of our population who certainly have the easiest time navigating the vertiginous array of stumbling blocks to getting a degree: three-quarters of the students at the country's top 146 colleges come from the richest socio-economic quarter of the population, versus 3 percent who come from the poorest fourth. Also, nepotism competes with merit and need, as "legacy" admissions make up 10-15 percent of every college class. With these numbers, the recent conservative movement to censure affirmative action is doubly deplorable.

Upward mobility myth

A discussion about the sad state of education in our country and it's detrimental effect on upward mobility wouldn't be complete without mentioning credit card companies that target college students. I wasn't immune to the offers of free t-shirts and Frisbees they gave out on the main walkway in campus in exchange for my signature. I succumbed, using the cards for pay for things like books, groceries, antibiotics if I got sick (and unfortunately that really fun trip to Cancun!). Those harmless little applications set me back thousands of dollars over the ensuing years, and I am still paying the price (and exorbitantly high interest rates) today. So just when a student has jumped over financial hurdles and through hoops, finally getting set to enter the world of work and advancement, she is probably so mired in debt that the idea of any sort of economic advancement is laughable. In the last ten years, student debt more than doubled.

I can ultimately live without the Political Science Master's degree I covet and can't afford. But what about my Latino immigrant server at the dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria? His chances of getting an education in America were probably nil, but where his children once had a much better chance of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, that's becoming less and less of a possibility today. The poor and disadvantaged are increasingly staying that way.

From the '70s on, over 50 percent of the families who started off poor stayed that way, so the recent studies indicating that immigrants are finding fewer inroads to the middle class make perfect sense to me. And with the federal minimum wage not budging anytime in the foreseeable future from $5.15 an hour to an even remotely "living" wage, it's clear the bootstraps of most people start off broken.

Add to our Potemkin Village of American progress in education and mobility the shambles of affordable healthcare, de-unionization, and corporation-run globalization and we have a calamitous economic shift, prohibitive to just about any sort of progress. This begs the question: where did we go wrong? Clearly Americans have elected politicians who oppose using the muscle of government to restrain the forces of widening inequality. These politicians argue that lifting the minimum wage or requiring employers to offer health insurance would do unacceptably large damage to economic growth.

Where do we go from here?

It wasn't always that way, though. America's Gilded Age (of the "robber barons" fame) experienced an aristocratic bent similar to what we're seeing today -- elites ruled both the economy and the government until progressive politicians, in conjunction with rich philanthropic luminaries like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, joined forces to improve education, which everyone agreed was imperative to maintain a democratic society and allow for mobility. It remains to be seen if similar reforms will take root today. But as it stands right now, moving up is all in the individual's hands.

That's not to say there isn't any hope. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, women are represented in every profession in increasing numbers. In fact, women outnumber men in some fields (e.g., fighter pilots, various specialty physicians, sportscasters, anchor women on national news shows (a la Katie Couric), truck drivers, law enforcement, etc.) where a mere fifty years ago they were virtually non-existent. There are few, if any, professions or fields that prohibit females.

Minorities are doing even better than women, especially where compensation is concerned. The challenge now is to achieve true equality (on every issue: recognition, salary, terms and conditions, stature, etc.) in those professions. White men are still making more on average and moving up much more easily than everybody else, constituting a troubling white-collar microcosm that represents the proverbial 'rich keep getting richer and poor keep getting poorer,' as the average person has to do a lot more with less money.

In response to the huge expansion in higher education over the last decade or two (fueling the stubborn persistence of the view that people can move up in the world, no matter what the evidence suggests), a college professor of mine suggested that perhaps our country needs to shift our belief and values system away from the notion that everyone should go to college, instead drumming up encouragement for a big chunk of less-high-achieving kids to enroll in trade and professional schools, where they will most add value to society.

Try telling that to the kid who dragged herself out of Buffalo (with a healthy kick in the butt from mom) to make something of her life! I thought then, as I do now, how difficult it would be for me to imagine my college dreams stymied by someone else's lower expectations of me. So while in theory his idea makes some sense, in practice it's just not fair to assume responsibility for someone's future in that way. In every facet of life, I've found that decreased expectations correlate directly with poor performance.

Ultimately, against my better judgment, and all the factors working against it, I still believe in a modified version of the American Dream. One day, I'd like to be honored at a dinner because of all the scholarship money I give to hard-working students. But before my ilk can realize our own goals with regard to economic stability and mobility, politicians -- and the voters they represent -- need to do something to tackle the horrendous inequality at its grass roots: education.

The thorniness enters the picture when it comes time for us young people to take action. Even though we came out to vote in larger numbers in 2004, people above 25 still vote in higher numbers than the youngest set of voters. Where we do make a bigger impact is in micro-level contributions such as volunteering and community organizing. Until we can run the world, things like tutoring, mentoring and organizing our communities could just be the spark that starts the revolution our country so desperately needs.

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