Reviving The American Dream - Our Future Depends On It
Most of our modes of commerce, from the purchase of groceries to banking, have been depersonalized. Instead of buying produce from the farmer or taking a loan from the local banker, we mediate these exchanges through ATM machines and supermarkets. At a deeper level, we know that the neighborhood we live in may be more important than the house we live in. We know that where we live will impact the schools our children go to, our safety, and our access to not just jobs, but also to people and both material and social wealth. A middle-income person living in a poor neighborhood is not similarly situated to a middle-income person living in a middle-income neighborhood. The importance of institutional arrangements and the interactions within these structures for the distribution of opportunity in our society is only increasing.
When I was growing up, I was told that in America, if you work hard and apply yourself, you could be anything you wanted to become. This, to me, is the essence of the American Dream – the Horatio Alger story of rags to riches. Something’s happened over the last 25 years that has impacted the viability and credibility of this romantic notion. For the majority of people of color, the issue of access to opportunity continues to be elusive; however, the ability of people to move up the economic ladder has gotten more difficult for all of us. The rich have gotten richer and the assets of middle and low-income Americans have stagnated.
In their recent book, Class Wars?: What Americans Really Think about Economic Inequality, Benjamin Page and Lawrence Jacobs, conducted a thorough analysis of polling data going back 30 years on issues related to economic inequality. Page and Jacobs found that, “fewer than 5 percent of families moved from the poorest to the richest quartile during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.”
Concerns about economic inequalities cross all political boundaries. In 2007, President George W. Bush stated in a speech on Wall Street, “income inequality is real [and has] been rising for more than 25 years.” On November 8, 2008 President Barack Obama stated that, “while some have prospered beyond imagination in this global economy, middle-class Americans – as well as those working hard to become middle-class – are seeing the American Dream slip further and further away.” The Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, also weighed in on this issue in February 2007 when he stated, “[R]ising inequalities… has been evident for at least three decades… [N]o one should be allowed to slip too far down the economic ladder, especially for reasons beyond his/her control.”
Real family income for middle-class and lower class groups fell or stagnated over the past three decades. “[T]he total income of the average family and ‘real’ (inflation–adjusted) dollars -- declined by 3%. In 2004 dollars, that comes out to a decline of $16,000 per family, not the steady rise envisioned in the American dream," According to Page and Jacobs.
In fact, Americans, as a whole, are concerned about economic inequalities. This is not to say that Americans think everyone should be paid the same, but that the increasing stratification of wealth and income are harmful to the country as a whole. It’s not even a question about working hard and getting a diploma. American educational attainment has risen; at the same time, wage inequality has increased.
In the last few years much of my thinking has been focused on questions of economic inequalities. Why do certain groups of people have significant levels of economic disadvantage while other groups enjoy higher levels of economic advantage? It always strikes me as peculiar why we continue to see inqualities in education, housing, employment, and health outcomes by race and ethnicity.
While everyone, with the exception of the very rich, is suffering from economic inequalities, low-income people of color have the most significant economic inequality of any group in this country. This is due in part, according to the experts, to lack of access to opportunity structures, such as good schools, transportation, housing, and social networks. These systems are mutually-reinforce one another and drive poor outcomes for the majority of low-income people of color.
Last week I had the opportunity to attend a series of presentations by john a. powell, Executive Director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University, hosted by the Portland African-American Leadership Forum in Oregon. It was a fascinating series that began to unlock some of the mystery of why some racial groups experience significant social and economic inequalities.
In one of the presentations, Professor powell maintained that historically marginalized people of color and the very poor have been spatially isolated from economic, political, educational and technological power via reservations, Jim Crow, Appalachian mountains, ghettos, barrios, and the culture of incarceration. He states that there are “Interlocking systems of disadvantage which disproportionately shape and constrain the choices and life chances of people of color and poor Whites.” powell notes as an example that in 1960, African-American families in poverty were 3.8 times more likely to be in concentrated high-poverty neighborhoods than poor Whites. In 2000, African American families were 7.3 times more likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods than Whites.
This increased concentration of poverty for African Americans has persisted even with the advent of legislation such as the Civil Rights Act, fair housing legislation and other policies that were designed to equalize the playing field. According to Professor powell, “structural racialization involves a series of exclusions, often anchored in (and perpetuating) spatial segregation.” While bigotry and interpersonal discrimination still exist, he maintains, these types of persistent racialized outcomes are the product of opportunity structures within society.
A subtle, but an important point is Professors powell’s use of the term “structural racialization” as opposed to “structural racism.” He says that when we use the term “racism,” people are inclined to see a specific person—a racist. However, a racist is not necessary to perpetuate poor outcomes. Instead, institutional interactions generate racialized outcomes.
People concentrated in poor communities experience a number of deleterious, mutually reinforcing and cumulative impacts on their life outcomes. Research shows that children living in highly concentrated poverty and segregated neighborhoods are more likely to have lower educational attainment, have a higher probability to be involved in – or be a victim of – crime, live in substandard housing and not obtain the social and human capital necessary to participate in the American Dream.
To discuss racial economic inequalities, powell uses the framework of systems theory. He stresses that systems theory is not a panacea for solving wicked problems, such as racial inequalities, but is a framework to better understand these issues and to design solutions and interventions.
An excellent explanation of systems theory is given by Stephen Menendian and Caitlin Watt in their publication. Systems Primer (click on link for more information about systems theory). “All systems have a structure, and those structures matter. It is the organization and relationships between a system’s parts as much as the components themselves that shapes system outcomes and system behavior…. Systems behavior is different from the sum of its parts, and does not follow from intentions of the individual agents, but on how system agents are interacting with each other within the system structure.” Menendian and Watt go on to suggest that, “Racial differentials in the United States are as much a product of system structure as they are of individual behavior.”
In other words, according to powell, “We need to think about the ways in which the institutions that mediate opportunity are arranged, the order of the structures, the timing of the interaction and the relationships that exist between them.” To make his point, powell uses the example of an escalator: "Some people ride the up escalator to reach opportunity and others have to run up the down escalator to get there. Others are in wheelchairs and cannot access the escalator at all. Institutions continue to support, not dismantle, the status quo. This is why we continue to see racially inequitable outcomes even if there is good intent behind policies, or an absence of racist actors (i.e., structural racialization).”
While the impact of these dynamics is often racialized and uneven, powell advises caution in focusing just on the disparities. One reason is that eliminating disparities does not suggest the need to improve the condition of the dominant group. If the needs of the dominant group are ignored, a disparity-focused approach is often not sustainable. Instead, powell recommends an approach he calls “targeted universalism.” Its goal is universal, such as good health care or schools for all. Its approach is targeted because groups are situated differently in relation to opportunity structures. Targeted universalism requires an approach that is sensitive to the needs of different communities. The concerns and needs of the marginal communities are not lost, while and the dominant group is neither ignored nor privileged. It is important to emphasize that the universal focus is on the goal side, not the strategy side.
Page and Jacobs argue, based on their extensive polling data, that there is a new silent majority in America that has reached a consensus across party lines and across income groups; that "[I]ndividuals ought to do their best to care for themselves, but that government ought to foster opportunity and protect individuals against threats that might impede their actual exercise of opportunity." powell argues that everyone should have access to the critical opportunity structures needed to succeed in life, and that affirmatively connecting people to opportunity creates positive, transformative change in communities.
As the world continues to be increasingly interconnected and interdependent, what happens in poor communities does not just harm poor people, but harms us all—as evidenced by the meltdown of the financial industry in the wake of the foreclosure crisis. It is imperative that we continue to develop new ways of expanding opportunities for all communities and to ensure geographical relationships so that low-income, isolated communities have access to opportunity structures.
The United States is in competition with the world; we cannot afford to waste human capital or allow structures and systems to diminish the productivity of all our citizens. If there was ever a time we needed to revive the capacity of the American Dream for low-income and middle-income citizens and to ensure that we have equal access to opportunity, it is today. Our future depends on it.