Friday, March 7, 2014

Losing the American Dream

    What happened to the middle class? Where has the American Dream gone?
    In the middle of the 20th century, it seemed like we had figured it out. The post World War II GI Bill of Rights provided veterans the opportunity for a college education, for home ownership and for what came to be defined as the middle-class life.
    Social Security, a benefit that began in the 1930s, helped lift the elderly out of the poverty that was a near certainty for prior generations.
    Americans dreamed of far more than a chicken in every pot. They envisioned two cars in every garage. A bright future seemed inevitable for the middle class—until it wasn’t.
    Today’s stagnant wages, lost homes, crushing education debt and constant partisan bickering speak of the collapse of the middle class and the end of the dream. There is the sense that Americans are powerless against forces beyond any individual effort, and that there is no need for citizens to work together through our civil government to patch up the dream.
    The American Dream has not been battered solely by economic forces or cultural changes. What happened is that we bought into nonsense. The Economist magazine summed it up: “The seeds of today’s disaster were sown in the 1980s. College graduation rates kept soaring for the affluent, but for those in the bottom half, a four-year degree is scarcely more attainable today than it was in the 1970s. And because some colleges actually hinder social mobility, what increasingly matters is not just whether you go to college but where.”
     Prior to the ’80s, an educated electorate was considered a public good, something worth the taxes that paid for it. Some voices, however, began to point to the higher wages earned by the college educated and declared that education is a private good. They argued that the public shouldn’t have to pay because students could shoulder loans and pay them back later. The same voices trumpeted lower public budgets, opposed the minimum wage and cut public pension benefits.
    In campaigning for the presidency in 1980, Ronald Reagan often proclaimed that government was not the solution to our problems but was itself the problem. His attitude has been perpetuated and continues to be a tenet of faith of government leaders at every level.
    That unquestioning faith, along with a divided Congress that pays more attention to the needs of the wealthy than the middle class, is hamstringing the nation by making political faith more important than the facts of middle-class decline.
    Until the nation’s leaders put facts ahead of faith, the American Dream will continue on its downward path.

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