The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Forgotten Piece of the American Dream

It is often said that if you work hard in America, you can pull yourself up by the bootstraps and make something of yourself. This belief has been handed down to us from generations of pioneers, pilgrims, farmers and factory workers However, there is one very important detail we have forgotten from their stories: This is the American Dream. In other words, it is not the European Dream or some other dream. This has been possible primarily in America, and there are reasons for that.

As my immigrant grandmother used to tell me time and time again, hard work did not equal prosperity in 1920s Eastern Europe. In that time and place, you worked your fingers to the bone in the hopes of just barely scraping by, assuming some famine, war or repressive government did not completely wipe away your gains or even your very chances of survival. In America, by contrast, you worked your fingers to the bone in the hopes of building a better life for yourself as well as for your children and community. That was unprecedented in history, and the immigrants knew it.

The bottom line is that hard work is not all that is needed for prosperity. It is a combination of hard work and good economic and political policies that make prosperity possible. Most of our ancestors lived in absolute poverty through century after century of life as peasants in Europe, Asia, the Middle East or elsewhere. They worked hard but had little hopes of moving up in the world.

There are complex reasons why most of the population of Europe lived in perpetual poverty for century after century. All too often, we probably just unconsciously assume that civilization and technology had just not developed to the point where a better life were possible. I would suggest that the causes were actually the near-constant wars, political instability and third-world-type exploitation that robbed the poor and glutted the rich.

America was no walk in the park, either. 1890s America was a brutal place for most people. We hear some of the success stories, but there were many folks ground under the wheels of the industrial revolution who did not survive, and neither did their stories. Still, there was enough opportunity in America to make a critical difference. Most importantly, when the system got too oppressive, we changed it. There were always people trying to undermine the American Dream, and we have had to work hard and use our democratic voices to keep the window of opportunity open for as many as possible.

This is something to keep in mind as we think about the current budgets that are being proposed at the state and national levels. For the first time in the history of America, the younger generation is not doing better than their parents. Wages for middle class and the poor have been stagnant since the early 1980s, but the price of everything has gone up, as it naturally does. The middle class—which helped defined this country and make it what it is and was—is clearly shrinking. There is a tendency to blame the poor for their own problems: “They are poor because they don’t work hard enough.” That may be true for some, but it is not true for most. The amount of people in poverty is growing in just the last couple of years, and it would be silly to suggest that those people are simply not willing to work as hard as they did just a short while before. People say we do not need collective bargaining, that if we just work hard enough the rest will fall into place, as if multi-national corporations will just seek our best interests without any of us at the table to speak for ourselves.

Hard work does not solve all problems. However, hard work--in an environment that supports it--can be golden.

I visited the homes on Millionaire's Row in Rhode Island years ago with my family. You can tour the mansions of the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers. The tenements and shacks in which many of their workers lived have not survived to be viewed. 1890s America was a time when a few had unbelievable wealth and power, while most lived an impoverished existence with a lifestyle of malnutrition, 16-hour work days and child labor. When I read statistics that right now 400 individual Americans have more wealth than 155 million Americans combined, it is not hard to see that we are making an uncomfortable parallel to an age we should not revisit.

It makes no sense to me that in an effort to balance our state and national budgets, we are further cutting taxes on the very wealthy while demanding that the growing segment of poor and what's-left-of-the-middle-class pay for it. Right now, the rich are under-taxed compared to other periods of time, and their level of taxation is not preventing them from reaching unprecedented levels of wealth. However, the poor and middle class are struggling just to make ends meet.

What do we want our country to be like? Senator Bernie Sanders used the word "oligarchy" to describe this kind of nation we are heading toward--a small group of people controlling vast resources. We may already be there.