Elliott Ingersoll, Ph.D.
This is the second of my two-part article on the American Dream. If you missed part I in Around Kent Volume 15, I introduced three graduate students with very different backgrounds and images of the American Dream. Karwana, a Ph.D. student from Uganda majoring in policy studies, was living his American Dream of a graduate degree and now teaching International Politics. Ingrid, a first-generation Latino-American, is pursuing her American dream of the freedom to choose and not be tied to Hispanic culture out of obligation but choice as an instructor of Adult Learners. Finally, Janine, an African-American graduate is pursuing her American dream of counseling clients who suffer from opioid addiction.
I also shared that my mind/brain, for better or worse, is infected with an American dream. It is a dream of meritocracy I chase by earning a Ph.D. and working a position as a professor in University. I also have a psychological consulting business I work at on evenings and weekends. Even though I am taxed at a rate of 40% on my consulting, I still do it because it allows me to provide better for loved ones, purchase luxury items like books, and pay for the seemingly endless physical repairs mandated by middle-aged mileage (disintegrating spinal discs), pig-headed choices (running on bad knees), and previously unknown insults like receding gums (not all recessions are financial).
I had some thoughtful responses to part I of the American dream article and the ideas presented in it. Two friends, one from Canada and the other from the United Kingdom, noted that I am writing a human (not just American) dream, yearning for a life guided by the richest values of humanity. Human beings gravitate toward freedom like plants toward sunlight – “freeliotopism” my one friend calls it. I accept their point, but in true American fashion, we Americans have “branded” the idea of a life dream – the American dream - in ways ranging from passionate promises to petty propaganda. Another reader noted I had specifically addressed baby-boomers and the “greatest generation” and asked about Millenials’ American dream. To clarify, both Janine and Ingrid are Millenials. Their generation (born between 1980 and mid-2000s) that is the largest generation in our country (one-third of the population) and has the largest percentage of immigrants and children of immigrants so their unique perspective is vital in our understanding of the topic. In this article, we will explore what Janine, Ingrid and Karwana see as the best ways to facilitate the American dream, and the greatest threats to it.
ACCESS TO EDUCATION
Without a doubt all three students note that access to education is the greatest way to pursue one’s American dream. Much research exists that hard work plus education are both necessary for achieving the American dream. The education level of household heads is increasingly correlated with their education level. The income gap between well educated and less educated people has grown steadily over the past fifty years. Single-parent household have increased thirty percent since 1970 and on average earn one-third the income of dual-parent households. Given this, the American Enterprise/Brookings Working Group on Poverty recommend that Americans should have access to education regardless of the circumstances of their birth. They also assert that Americans are entitled to security from things like economic fluctuations beyond their control and a baseline of material well-being (paired with the responsibility to provide for themselves to the best of their ability).
College graduation rates have soared for students from wealthier families but, despite this, only 38% of Americans hold some form of Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree. Only about 8% hold a master’s degree. Although the “sticker price” of college has also soared, the actual price has remained steady for lower or middle-income students. We need to clarify this when the costs of education are discussed. We also need to discuss innovations in student aid such as simplifying the financial aid process for low and middle income students. This costs about $100 per student but increases college enrollments significantly. Also, at the cost of $6 per student, mailing or emailing personalized information on college options to students raises their application and enrollment rates. Although there are innovative alternatives to federal and state funding for universities, such funding is still crucial. Unfortunately, Ohio received a grade of “F” on support for public universities. Ohio legislators cut funding by 27% over the past five years. Many legislators believe shortsightedly, that since only a minority of voters attend university, it is better for their political futures to shortchange the social mobility of all Ohioans. Such legislators need to be called out on their ignorance.
Intricately related to educational access, is social mobility. This is the ability to increase one’s earnings to move from a lower economic stratum to a higher one. Such mobility is associated with longevity, better mental and physical health, and better options for one’s children. Intimately tied to social mobility, is autonomy - independence and freedom to exercise one’s will through one’s actions. This, more than proverbial riches, is what all my students valued the most. Autonomy, in turn, is tempered by the cost of living. A Pew Charitable Trust survey found that 83% of those surveyed earned more than their parents but were not necessarily making gains. One of the ironies of the American dream is that we have a high tolerance for income inequality. The classic story is a penniless immigrant lands in American and works her way up. As she earns more, her economic situation improves. If she earns enough, she can move into a higher economic stratum. If the rules of the game are the same for everyone, this tolerance could be seen as a virtue. If, however, the rules are weighted in favor of the wealthiest, then this tolerance becomes an intolerable delusion.
Erin Currier, director of the Economic Mobility Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts, says that on the spectrum of economic strata, there is a lot of “stickiness” at the ends. Those born poor may do significantly better than their parents but still be “stuck” in a low-income life. Those in the oft-mentioned 1% are more likely to stay wealthy. That “stickiness” challenges the idea of the American dream and leads many to question the reality of equal opportunity. For example, none of my federal representatives has ever been able to explain to me why my consulting earnings are taxed at 40% while someone else trading stocks in their spare time is taxed at about 25%. For that matter, I write to my “representatives” at least six times a year and pretty much get the same form letter back no matter the content of my letters. Perhaps that tells me more than I wish to know.
All three of the students described in this series stated that they recognized the need to pay taxes for the common good. They described the common good as a safety net – the protection from the economic fluctuations that are out of their control. They also felt that legislators have lost sight of the common person’s connection to the common good. Karwana like to tell his students that one of the most adaptable qualities that evolved in human beings is their ability to work together. Even in an individualist culture, no person is an island and even someone wealthy enough to own an island usually does not grow their own food or clean their own bathroom. Janine sees the loss of community as one of many variables that can drive addiction. This is why 12-step groups have always been a useful complement to therapy for many people. Ingrid described her own aggravation at the idea that under the most recent proposed tax changes, graduate students would pay taxes on tuition awards while the wealthiest among us would enjoy even more tax cuts they clearly do not need. All three agree that opportunity in their American dream is increasingly being impeded by rules weighted to favor the wealthiest.
In terms of solutions, all three of my students felt that people needed forums for real dialogue. Non-electronic, person-to-person, safe spaces to try to understand each other. Such understanding, they said, is critical to recognizing the value of the common good; our common humanity. Karwana is the most outspoken about how Americans need to reclaim their governing representatives and come together to understand each other. He admits, this is a challenge because of the influence of the “big money” given to politicians by donors and lobbyists. He believes though, that an awakening is under way. He told me that regardless of what I think about President Trump, he was elected by a disgruntled group of voters who in the past had not voted. Kawana says our best bet is to get to know these people; form relationships so that we can use that relationship to effect changes. Ingrid says that bringing more Trump voters into higher education could also work toward such understanding. Janine is most dubious. She admitted that as an African-American woman, she tends to stereotype Trump voters as misogynistic bigots and the idea of a dialogue with them seems unthinkable. She admits that her mind/brain is fueling these images but they are also rooted in experiences of prejudice and poverty. She also says though that if it would help, she is willing to try. Perhaps that is the type of willingness we could all emulate. The willingness, in the face of strongly held convictions, to try to understand each other. A willingness to understand each other across our financial, educational, ethnic and racial diversity; the diversity that can be a strength or a barrier.