The New American Dream
Feb 23rd, 2012 | By Josh Wood | Category: Politics, Top Headline | Print This Article
Rick Santorum, former Republican senator from Pennsylvania and current contender for the Republican presidential nomination, recently said, “[S]tudies have been done that show that in Western Europe, people at the lower parts of the income scale actually have a better mobility going up the ladder now than in America.” Columnist David Frum echoed this sentiment, quipping, “The American dream is still alive. It’s just more likely to come true in Denmark than in the U.S.A.” From economists to politicians to citizens occupying public parks across America, a debate is raging. Is the American dream still attainable?
Long hailed as the land of opportunity, America takes pride in its heritage—and the heritage of its immigrant forefathers. Men and women from all parts of the world came to America and wove their story into the fabric of American culture. On their backs, America became the place where—if you worked hard enough—you could better yourself. More importantly, America became the place where you could guarantee your children a better life. Men risked everything, sold their possessions, and arrived on our shores penniless. Their children and grandchildren are now business owners, politicians, doctors, lawyers—you name it.
So What’s the Problem?
According to several studies published in recent years, America’s relative income mobility has slowed. As a result, in most studies of comparable nations, America lags behind all but Britain in income mobility or intergenerational income elasticity. More simply put, according to researchers, American children are more likely to remain in their parents’ economic bracket than children in the other countries studied. For example, their research shows that 42 percent of Americans born into a family in the bottom income quintile will remain there during their lifetime. Contrast this with only 25 percent in Denmark and 30 percent in Britain.
This trend in downward relative economic mobility has been noted by researchers since the 1970s. (The period from World War II to the 1970s marked the height of America’s relative income mobility.) However, with the recent economic worries, housing market bust, and unemployment crisis, the topic is no longer relegated to academics or policy wonks. We’ve seen Occupy Wall Street spring up and spawn similar groups across the country. Politicians on both sides of the aisle bemoan the plight of the middle class and poor. Passionate debates rage about the cost of entitlements and our social safety nets. These issues are all affected by the larger issue of intergenerational income mobility.
The Occupy Wall Street movement asks why it feels like those at the top are holding us down when we’re supposed to be able to pull ourselves up. Politicians wonder aloud why the wealth and income gap between the rich and the middle class is expanding. The whole country seems divided on who is responsible to ensure the poor’s wellbeing. This, of course, begs the question: is there any income mobility for the poor? It seems like the burden of caring for them increases with each generation, where, as they rose in the financial ranks, you would expect it to decrease.
Solutions from the Left Side—Solutions from the Right Side
Left-leaning politicians and activists seize upon these numbers as irrefutable evidence that government intervention is demanded. The American dream, they argue, is a right. It’s the birthright of every man, woman, or child who calls this land home. To them, it is unconscionable that four in ten children will not rise above their parents’ class. To rectify this travesty, they propose government intervention to level the playing field.
Buttressed by good-sounding intentions, liberals propose to solve the income mobility problem primarily through government intervention funded by increased taxes on the rich. They’ve yet to propose a direct transfer of funds from the rich to the poor, so they disguise the transfer. They talk about creating high paying jobs by subsidizing green energy. They promote a Big Labor agenda under a similar guise. We keep hearing about stimulus to fund “shovel-ready jobs.” They aim to reduce life’s burdens through safety nets and entitlements.
Right-leaning politicians approach the problem differently. They hear the Political Left’s proposals and see a different, more sinister agenda. Economics professor Walter E. Williams contends that:
Demagogues duping Americans about stagnant and declining income give politicians justification to raise taxes and place regulatory obstacles in the path of risk-taking, productivity, and hard work that will impede the enviable income mobility that has become a part of American tradition. Raising taxes on capital formation reduces the rate of capital formation. Raising taxes on income reduces incentives to work. Unfortunately, because so many Americans buy into the politics of envy, politicians have a leg up in enacting measures that cripple economic growth.
Many conservative thinkers and writers also argue that relative income mobility is an ineffective and inaccurate metric. Relative income mobility doesn’t take into account the impact of the massive immigration America sees on an annual basis. Immigrants typically start out at the very bottom of the income scale, so without accounting for them and their effect on the bottom-end of the income scale, it creates the false impression that incomes at the lower ends are stagnant. In reality, however, using a metric called Absolute Income Mobility, they argue that virtually every American earns more and does better than their parents.
With their fundamental belief in the American dream intact, right-leaning politicians pay homage to smaller, less intrusive government. The idea, they say, is for Washington to get out of the way and allow the people of the country to pursue their betterment unencumbered by excessive meddling. They tend to support lower taxes, fewer regulations, and curtailing the behemoth entitlements that they blame for dragging America’s economy down.
The Slow Creep of Tyranny
As the debate rages around us, it’s important to remember that while we can’t escape Washington’s influence, waiting for them to solve problems for us is not the American way. Government is not the guarantor of the American dream. To fully understand our current condition, we must start here. Since the Great Depression, the government has been working overtime to create dependency. They told successive generations that the government is responsible for their retirement, their medicine, their income if they happen to be unemployed, their health care, and their housing situation. We see government’s hand in telling us what to eat, what to think, what to say, and how to feel. The natural inclination of power is to seek more power. Even a government founded with such noble intentions as ours is not immune to these perils. Out of the hardships of a previous generation rose the well-intentioned travesties of this generation.
As families, we can’t participate in this cycle of dependence. So, what do we do? How do we protect our families against the persistent creep of dependence-causing tyranny? What are the values we must pass on to ensure that the American dream survives for us and for future generations?
The American Dream the American Way
- Work hard. The American dream isn’t just about the end result. Yes, we all want a better life, but those of us that deserve it don’t expect to have it handed to us. The American dream is about the process of attaining the better life. It’s about the long days, the sweat, the toil, the agony—the slow burn of pulling ourselves up is what ultimately provides the pleasure of the reward. The desire to work hard is not necessarily a genetic trait. For many it must be trained. It must be demonstrated that earning something is better than being given something. Our kids value more that for which they worked harder.
- Live selflessly. The prevailing characteristic of those who’ve gone before us was their insistence that their success be about something other than just success. Our grandfathers were content to climb down dark and dangerous mine shafts for countless hours because they knew it would result in their children and grandchildren not having to do the same. They didn’t live selfishly. They lived for the good of others. The American dream is a story of generosity and self-sacrifice. The true joy is not the house or the bank balance; it’s the confidence that future generations have a solid foundation on which to start their climb.
- Be honorable. We cannot leave a legacy of frivolity, immaturity, or wastefulness. We must not teach our children that shortcuts are acceptable. Where right and wrong are discernible, we must choose right. Sometimes this is taking a public stand in defense of a sacred value, while other times it is more quietly demonstrating loyalty and character in the home towards your family. While being worthy of honor, we must also acknowledge honorable things. Our children rely on us to teach them to prioritize. What are those values, institutions, and people we’re pointing them to? Are they truly valuable? How tragic to become complacent and teach our children to honor idleness or ill-gotten celebrity.
- Have integrity. This is fundamental. We must be people of our word. America was envisioned, fought for, and secured by men who understood the lasting significance of integrity. These men gave their lives to keep their word. As a result, we live in the greatest country on earth—the country millions of immigrants flock to hoping to provide a better life for their children. You can’t live the American dream if you don’t honor and emulate the integrity of its founders. You can’t lead a home or train up children if you are untrustworthy. Sometimes our integrity puts us in hard places or creates difficult dilemmas. Maintaining integrity is worth the blood, sweat, and tears it takes.
- Take responsibility. Everywhere you look, you encounter victims. It’s certainly an American value to have compassion on true victims of crime or mistreatment, but our society is drunk on victimhood. For everything that doesn’t go according to plan, there’s someone there willing to help you pass the blame on to someone else. Banks are the villain. Big corporations are the villain. The other political party is the villain. But really, all that’s needed to recover from a setback is the willingness to take responsibility for your lot in life. It’s your responsibility to find income to support your family. It’s your responsibility to rebuild your home after a disaster. It’s your responsibility to raise your children to be respectable citizens. Depending on someone else—especially government—to manage the most fundamental tasks is the recipe that has been used to concoct our current mess.
- Act courageously. The American dream is not for cowards. America was built by men willing to stake their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor in the belief that America could be a land of promise and a beacon to the world. If we’re going to stand in their shadow, we must resist the instinct to shrink in fear. Any willingness to protect ourselves by refusing to courageously defend the principles that made this nation great undermines our entire pursuit. We end up less protected, and we’ve managed to let down the people depending on us. Our families suffer. Our neighbors suffer. Our communities suffer. Our cowardice may lead us to wealth, but we will only be wealthy cowards. The American dream is heroic in its tendency to influence and inspire masses of men and women to achieve great things for themselves.
- Resolve to finish. Persistence does pay. Imagine America if the Rocky Mountains had stopped the transcontinental railroad. Imagine America if the harsh terrain and suspicious natives had intimidated Lewis and Clark. Imagine an America still mired in slavery or segregation. Imagine America if we had decided not to commit completely to winning World Wars I and II. Imagine America if we just abandoned cities after hurricanes and earthquakes. How would it affect our collective psyche if we had given up these monumental, defining undertakings? The men and women who risked everything for a dream would not have had their inspiration. Ours would be a much less hopeful existence. But because the American spirit—the fuel of the American dream—is undeterred, we live in the land of the greatest opportunity. We are not quitters. We cannot stop striving now. We may not be fighting for something on the scale of the personal computer or a super-vaccine, but we are fighting for something precious. We are fighting for the betterment of our children. We can never give up.
- Be proud. Arrogance is unbecoming, but a well-earned sense of pride in real accomplishments is powerful. Our children see it and want to know how it feels. We’re bombarded with shame. Many among us are possessed by self-loathing and guilt. They somehow feel ashamed of the benefits of being an American. They feel guilty about our wealth or our level of development. But there’s no shame in looking out and saying, by God’s grace, we did this! We built the world’s most powerful economy, most stable infrastructure, and most dominant culture. We’re the keepers of the world’s most desired value: freedom. We, America, offer this to the world. And we should offer it proudly.
Dick Armey authored a study for the Joint Economic Committee in 1992 entitled “Income Mobility and Economic Opportunity.” His conclusion sums it up perfectly: “The empirical data support the view of the market economy as a dynamic and open society which provides opportunity to those who participate.” In other words, to ensure our children and grandchildren have the same limitless access to the American dream that we were blessed with will require constant vigilance on our part.
First, we must participate. We cannot sit on the sidelines bemoaning the death of the America that was. We must be enthusiastically and actively involved in honoring those who came before us—and becoming worthy of the honor of those who follow.
Second, we must resist. There is a vocal minority that wants to rewrite history and redefine the American experience. It is imperative that through education and experience, we demonstrate their foolishness. Reject the retelling of our history. Demonstrate America’s goodness by modeling its traditional values. America is only a beacon when her people shine the light of God—fear and freedom.
Third, we must train. We have to be louder in our children’s ears than the voices of teachers, politicians, and entertainers. Drill these lessons into them. Live them out. Use them as your guide in affirmation and discipline. Create scenarios to practice them and master their application. When it’s time to release our children to live their own lives, we can have confidence that these values will hold.
Living lives of integrity, hard work, responsibility, and courage—that’s what living the American dream is all about. Passing that dream down to our children and our children’s children is the culmination of that dream. The American dream isn’t dead. When we hear others tell us it’s dead—or only available to a select few—we should encourage them and explain to them the values that made the American dream the magnet for the world’s tired, poor, huddled masses. Let’s know and love the history—how America embraced hard-working immigrants with a dream and turned them into the most successful nation on earth. The American dream is still alive and well.
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