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.