A year and a half ago Pew Research came out with a report chronicling the demise of the American middle class. According to Pew, the percentage of Americans in the middle class, households with incomes ranging from $39,000 to $118,000, has dropped from 61% in 1971 to 51% today. In percentage terms, that’s a drop of almost 20%.
Now of course, the report became front page fodder for the mainstream media. Not long after it surfaced came the polls. The one that intrigued me was a Pew poll that asked Americans who was to blame for this decrease. The “blame game” was as follows:
- the government – 62%,
- the big banks – 53%
- the people themselves – 8%
Hmm, yes you read that right. Only Eight percent of the America populus believes that our current economic predicament is due to the actions of the people themselves. According to them, the blame is equally distributed between Wall Street and Washington D.C.
Currently, we’re mired “neck-deep” in another season of “fantasy land” political rhetoric. One common thread between both parties, one of the few, is the American Dream – or should I say, how to rekindle it. Now what is the American Dream? As far as I can tell, over the last fifty years … the American Dream has rested on two pillars; home ownership and a college education.
Now these two cornerstones may have been appropriate thirty or forty, or even twenty years ago – but today I’m not so sure. In fact, I believe it’s time to re-assess the whole idea of the American Dream. Because I believe this “dream,” and what it stands for, might very well be the reason we’re in the mess we’re in right now. And the sooner we readjust our thinking, the faster we’ll get out of it.
First, let’s discuss home ownership, the ultimate shackle of flexibility. The problem isn’t so much there aren’t jobs out there, it’s that the jobs aren’t necessarily where the people are that need them. For example, the Williston Oil Basin in North Dakota has so many open jobs they have to resort to paying a clerk at McDonalds $15 / hour to get anyone. Water truck drivers easily make six figures. These are not the highest skilled jobs, so most able-bodied workers could land one – probably within a day of arriving. But it’s kind of hard to get a job there, or any of the other employment hot beds, if you’re stuck upside down in mortgage that you can’t, or aren’t willing to, get out from under. After all, it’s your “dream house” and isn’t a dream house part of the American Dream.
And second, let’s talk about college, or should I say the “ball and chain” of student debt that is most often attached to it. It seems that anyone who graduates from high school, even with barely passing grades, has to go to college. Haven’t we’ve been told that the road to success is through the esteemed gates of an overpriced university? And even you, as a high school graduate, in a moment of sanity, decide to reflect on the actual benefits of that said education, your parents will be banging down your bedroom door, hounding you about the those colleges applications. After all, god forbid if you didn’t go to college … they’d be looked at as failures as parents. Never mind that the unemployment rate for new college graduates is around 15 to 20%, with underemployment probably twice that. And with little opportunity after graduation, you get the bill, a bill you can never get rid of, even with bankruptcy. Now I’m not saying college is a bad idea. I just don’t think traditional old-line higher education should be the default choice, without serious thought being put into other options.
So here we have the American Dream. One pillar, geographically restricts your employment and career opportunities. While the other saddles you with debt so high you feel like you’re behind the eight ball well into your thirties. But wait, isn’t it un-American not to pursue the American Dream?
This brings me back to the decline of the middle class and the reasons for it. It’s always easy to blame someone else. The government did it! And by the way, where’s my bail out, I pay taxes! A college education worked for my dad and even his dad before that. What about me! And if it wasn’t for the banks, well … I just hate ’em!
Well let me tell you something, neither the government nor the banks made you buy that overpriced ‘dream house’ and take out that mortgage that you very well couldn’t afford in the first place without giving up your first-born. And neither government nor the banks made you spend four years, if you’re lucky, getting that humanities degree and the few gainful employment opportunities associated with it.
These are just two of the examples of what’s happening in this country right now. We want times like they were ten or twenty years ago, times when we spent like drunken sailors. But like any good binge, there’s going to be a hangover. Well, welcome to the next morning! We can’t sit and lay the blame of our behavior of the past on others. And we sure can’t expect to be bailed out for this behavior.
It’s time to take responsibility!
The sooner we do, the faster we’ll recover. Things will not return to the way they were, no matter what Obama or whoever eles promise. Only we can fix our own plight. And step one is re-assessing that thing called the American Dream. It may have worked for generations past, but today it can be more of a nightmare than a dream.
In 2008, a teenage Jennifer Lawrence starred in movie called “Poker House.” Three sisters fought for life with their prostitute, drug addicted mother in a run-down Council Bluffs flop house. In the opening scene, Lawrence, fifteen, who had just got done kicking out her mother’s last ‘john’ at 6:00 AM, explained her life in a nutshell, a line we should all take to heart.
“The man in the white hat, the man on the white horse … he ain’t coming.”
In Ancient Greek mythology, Samson brought down the pagan temple by destroying the two pillars supporting it. Maybe it’s time to bring down our archaic vision of the American Dream …
and build it new.
You can find me on Twitter at @clayforsberg