California Forum

Losing a grip on the American dream

The Kansas City Star

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In 1931, historian James Truslow Adams described the American dream as “a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

This fall, I went on a road trip looking for the American dream and found it badly battered.

Driving to and from Oklahoma in a monthlong journey, I heard people say what the pollsters tell us: Many Americans know the income gap between rich and poor has widened, and a lot have a bleak view of the country’s path going forward.

I stopped to talk to people in grocery stores, parks, bakeries, campgrounds, RV parks, thrift stores, roadside diners, gas stations and restaurants. Their party affiliations differed, but their views and the words they used often were startlingly similar. Many lived “from paycheck to paycheck,” and most did not see Congress doing much to provide Americans with more financial security.

At Elephant Butte State Park in New Mexico, I met up with Brenda Woodhouse, a retired social worker who has spent four years on the road in her camper. She told me: “In my travels I started asking people about the American dream, but I finally stopped asking because people got so angry. Their dreams for retirement had vanished into thin air along with any hope for a flourishing economy.”

The 65-year-old Woodhouse, who grew up near Flint, Mich., said that when she graduated from high school “most guys figured they’d work for GM. Everyone thought they’d have a good life. Well, the plant closed.”

Now Woodhouse, who relies on her Social Security checks to get by, sees the income gap between rich and poor steadily increasing. “Why aren’t people outraged?” she asked. “I don’t understand it. People with money really control us. I don’t have the answer, but I feel no one is really looking out for us.”

As my husband and I drove from state to state en route to visit his relatives, we saw towns along Interstate 40 that withered when nearby Route 66, once considered America’s main street, was bypassed by the interstate highway system. The tableau of these towns’ boarded-up storefronts proved an appropriately bleak backdrop for what I heard.

“I believe the gap is happening at a growing pace, and I am embarrassed to say I haven’t given a lot of thought to it because I am just trying to survive,” said Linda Gunkel, a thrift store owner in Tucumcari, N.M. “Here’s the thing – we are somewhat allowing this situation to happen because we are too pooped to do anything about it.”

Those I spoke with – from a cook in Truth or Consequences, N.M., to a retired Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent from Lake Havasu, Ariz. – put a human face on what I have heard from experts whose jobs involve making assessments of economic trends. The comments from the people I met demonstrated how difficult it would be to build a political movement capable of narrowing the nation’s income gap.

They blamed all manner of ills for the gap’s existence – everything from a government controlled by wealthy interests to lazy citizens living off government subsidies. There was no unanimity about the gap’s cause or what to do about it.

Consistently, experts – not just critics on the left – stress that this gap is a dire development. Just a few examples underscore this point:

▪  Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve chairwoman, has said she thinks it “appropriate to ask whether this trend (rising economic inequality) is compatible with values rooted in our nation’s history, among them the high value Americans have traditionally placed on equality of opportunity.”

▪  In a London speech earlier this year, Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, said that in the United States “inequality is back to where it was before the Great Depression, and the richest 1 percent captured 95 percent of all income gains since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent got poorer.” She added: “Let me be frank: in the past, economists have underestimated the importance of inequality. … Put simply, a severely skewed income distribution harms the pace and sustainability of growth. … (It) leads to an economy of exclusion, and a wasteland of discarded potential.”

▪  The U.S. Census Bureau tells us that last year more than 45 million Americans were living below the poverty line; for a four-member family the classification of poor was an income of less than $23,830.

While many know of the income gap’s increase, it is clear that dissatisfaction with this trend has not prompted Americans to rush to the polls to vote for candidates who would push to combat the gap’s growth: It is estimated by the U.S. Elections Project that only a little more than one-third of the voting-eligible population voted in November’s midterm elections.

At the same time, more and more money is flowing into elections in larger amounts from a smaller percentage the very wealthy – particularly in the wake of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions enhancing this trend.

“It is routine that a tiny sliver of donors provide two-thirds of donations,” Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, told me. In the recent elections, though, she said the big money came from an even smaller proportion of donors.

“If we want a vibrant and true democracy, where we have real participation by as many people as possible, we are going in the wrong direction,” Krumholz said.

In the November elections, Krumholz added, “An elite cast of mega-donors directed huge sums at the relatively few competitive seats this cycle, allowing them the ability to help shape key themes in critical races. New trends and tactics will undoubtedly emerge in 2016, but we can already safely predict the spending will only soar higher in a presidential cycle.”

One essential element of any campaign to combat the growing income gap, of course, would be an informed and involved electorate – which we do not have.

A Gallup poll in September found that only a little more than a third of Americans could correctly identify at that time which party controlled the House of Representatives (Republicans) and which party controlled the Senate (Democrats). Only four out of 10 said that it mattered a great deal to them which party controlled Congress.

Even if this band of nonvoters magically was to become motivated enough to vote, it is not as if there are armies of politicians out there who make the income-gap issue an important part of their agendas.

In a September interview, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, said the Democrats’ strategy should be to stand up for the working class and to take on the billionaire class, Wall Street and people who finance campaigns.

Sanders added: “Is the Democratic Party there today? No. No one thinks it is.”

There are a few nuggets of hope, however.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that as of August, 23 states and the District of Columbia had enacted minimum wages above the $7.25 federal level, which has been in place since July 2009. The conference also says minimum wages will increase on Jan. 1 in nine states – Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon and Washington – due to indexed increases in their state laws. As of July 1, California raised its minimum wage to $9 an hour; it will climb to $10 in 2016, and in the November election, four red states – Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota – approved minimum-wage hikes as well.

When Gov. Jerry Brown endorsed the legislation last year to increase California’s minimum wage, he said, “This legislation is overdue and will help families that are struggling in this harsh economy.”

We live in a time when Congress’ intimate relationship with mega-donors is widely known. Most of those donors have no interest in lessening the income gap or in doing anything fundamental to help Americans scraping by. In fact, in this money-besotted political world, there may be no way to lessen the income gap’s growth. But there might be a sliver of hope in the darkest of moments. With the GOP-dominated Congress intent on thwarting President Barack Obama, the onus must be on state legislatures and governors to create major, visionary programs aimed at raising up those on the bottom through training, education and jobs. That might sound like a fool’s dream, but voters’ approval of minimum-wage increases in four red states in the November election seems to mirror both a growing awareness of the vast gulf between the very rich and the rest of us and some across-the-board support for legislation reducing the enormity of that gulf.

States’ actions could ease the widespread disillusionment among people I met who saw little hope that their economic lot would improve. Without ambitious government programs, the question is this: How long does a country thrive when its people harbor a perception that their politicians, swaddled in donations from the rich and big business, do nothing significant to fight the nation’s income gap?

As it is now, most of those I met on the road voice pessimism. Donna Brown, a 32-year-old RV park manager from Barstow, believes that while “Congress has the power to assist someone like me, chances are zero” that lawmakers will do anything. “I feel they don’t know firsthand what it’s like for anyone in the middle or lower class.”

Another somber view came from Julie Rackow – a 45-year-old University of Arizona graduate who works as a cook in Truth or Consequences. She told me: “There has to be some sort of consciousness revolution, but we have become complacent and apathetic. Among my friends, I see depression about what’s happening in America and in our own dysfunctional government. Our government isn’t accountable to its constituents – it’s accountable to Wall Street.”

Susan Sward is a writer who lives in San Francisco.

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