VICTORIA WHITE: The American dream has rapidly become a nightmare for the poor

Three year old Saria Amaya waits with her mother after receiving shoes and school supplies during a charity event to help more than 4,000 underprivileged children at the Fred Jordan Mission in the Skid Row area of Los Angeles.

So, Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio says Hillary Clinton wants to take Americans "back to yesterday"?

Most Americans would do better if they went back there. Poor Americans would do much better. The American dream, of opportunity for everyone, regardless of economic background, is in tatters.

Take going to college, for example. In 1980, a college education gave you a 50% advantage over your high school-educated peer. In 2008, that college education became a 95% advantage.

Well, that’s fine, isn’t it, because going to college is an intrinsic part of the American dream? But it’s not fine, because the gap between the number of rich children and poor children going to college is growing. Between 1980 and 2000, it grew from 39 percentage points to 51 percentage points.

Perhaps the most awful statistic is that poor children with good academic scores are nowadays slightly less likely to get a college degree than rich children with poor academic scores.

“That last fact”, writes Robert D. Putnam, in his new book, Our Kids: the American Dream in Crisis, “is particularly hard to square with the idea at the heart of the American dream: equality of opportunity.”


How would you feel if you were a gifted poor child and you were standing outside those college gates, watching a child who is lazy and thick driving through? Angry. Disenfranchised. Putnam calls the disenfranchisement of the American underclass “uncomfortably close to the political regime against which the American Revolution was fought.”

Putnam, author of Bowling Alone and described by The Sunday Times as “the most influential academic in the world”, shows in Our Kids how their parents’ wealth is a better predictor of how American children will fare in life. And he shows that this tragic erosion of equality has been ongoing through Democratic presidencies — including two in which current Democratic hopeful, Hillary Clinton, was the president’s right-hand woman — as well as through Republican ones.

Putnam describes the town in which he grew up, the uncomfortably named Port Clinton, Ohio, as having been “a passable embodiment of the American dream” in the 1950s.

Putnam, and most of his peers, experienced what he describes as “astonishing” social mobility. Three quarters of them got more education than their parents and nearly all of them got higher up the economic ladder. The poorer the children started off, the more they climbed, relative to their parents.

But that ladder was whipped away around the time Putnam’s children were ready to get on it. The children of the students who graduated in 1959 have experienced no educational gains beyond those of their parents, on average. And the education gap between rich and poor has grown as the physical divisions between different sections of this once-mixed community have been put up.

Putnam talks about driving east from downtown Port Clinton, along the shore of Lake Eyrie: to your left, on the shore, there is a child poverty rate of 1%; on the other side of the road, the child poverty rate is 51%.

The equality of opportunity enshrined in the American Constitution and Declaration of Independence, which Martin Luther King spoke of as the inheritance of every American child, is being stolen away.

The ‘achievement gap’ between high and low income families is 30% or 40% larger among children born in 2001 than among those born 25 years earlier.

The accumulated wealth of college-educated American households rose by 47% between 1989 and 2013, whereas among households in which parents only had high school education, net worth fell by 17% in the same period. These figures are behind a growing gap in the relative happiness of the rich and the poor that now stands at 30%. The rich are as happy as they were ‘yesterday’. The poor are less happy.

Putnam warns that if current trends continue the American dream will be shattered in the years ahead.

He shows an America in which children grow up in communities so different they could be on different continents.

Advantaged American children often have two parents who have time for them and who eat dinner with them every night. Their mothers more often work outside the home, but because there are two parents and the children are prioritised, they still get more “face time” than the children of stay-home mothers a generation ago.

They live in functional communities. They often go to church.

Children of parents who didn’t go to college have mothers who are, on average, 10 years younger and half as likely to work outside the home. Which would be fine if they had Dads with decent jobs. But they are far less likely to have Dad at home at all and if he has a job it usually can’t sustain a family, because blue collar salaries have been steadily eroded.

And these children live increasingly isolated in communities that are “imploding inwards.”

Putnam shows brilliantly that the achievements of America in the last century didn’t come about because of rugged individualism, but rather because of radical, egalitarian policies like the High School Movement (1910-1940).

He argues that a concerted return to American innovations, like sports and music for every child, as he had in his day, rather than just for those who can pay, is what’s needed to repair the dream.

But Putnam argues that the politics of the ‘left’ has forgotten about equality and concentrated, instead, on “identity politics” — the kind of politics, presumably, which makes same-sex marriage the “civil rights issue of this generation”, as Eamon Gilmore described it.

We have learned so much from America. We might be still waiting for free secondary school for all if it weren’t for the US High School Movement, which was the main engine of economic growth and economic equality in 20th century America.

But, right now, we have lots of things they don’t have, such as cash payments for all children which, as Putman shows, can have huge results: a €3,000 payment during the first five years of a child’s life is associated with higher academic scores and a 20% higher income in that child’s later life.

We have many mixed communities, linked by organisations whose good work we don’t value or support half enough, from the GAA to the churches. These communities are mostly serviced by good, mixed schools.

But all of these elements of social cohesion are under threat from a capitalist system that does not understand what it owes to them. If the next US president doesn’t resolve to bring the US “back to yesterday” by redistributing aggressively from the rich to the poor, then we must resolve to reach for a very different tomorrow than they will have.

US children grow up in communities so different they could be on different continents




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