Sunday, April 8, 2012

Has the American Dream Been Left Behind?

The wildly successful "Left Behind" book series imagines a series of events that revolve around what the "end times" some see described in the Bible's Book of Revelations.

But recently, I have had a few revelations of my own, and I think if something doesn't change, what we may already be witnessing is the "end times" of the American Dream as more and more Americans get "left behind."

It all starts, as so many things do, in our schools; or at least it is one of the places where it is most clearly reflected.

Conducted by Stanford University over 50 years, a new study has found that the gap in student achievement between students of rich families and those from poor families continues to widen.

Stanford researcher Sean Reardon found that the gap in test scores between the higher income and low-income children has grown by about 40 percent and is now nearly twice as large as the achievement gap between white and African-American students.

 "If you have money, generally your neighbors have money, which means you probably have access to better child care and preschools, and better elementary schools, parks and libraries," Reardon told the Stanford University News in this Feb. 13 article..

Cuts to social programs over the past several decades also may have had an effect, Reardon said.

"It's harder to be poor in America than it used to be," he said. "Some aspects of the social safety net have gotten weaker, and programs to help families through hard times have been dismantled."

Stanford researcher Sean Reardon
"It means that it's harder and harder to achieve the American dream that says it doesn't matter where you start, as long as you work hard you can rise above," he said.

Certainly, through history, family wealth has provided an advantage.

But there was a time in America when a good public education leveled that playing field, so that talent and ability allowed our best minds to rise to the top, what the founding fathers envisioned as a "meritocracy."

Now, as concerted efforts to use what's wrong with public education as a rationale to slowly starve public education continue to gain traction, it's what your parents portfolio holds, rather than what your skull holds, which pre-determines your success.

"We had expected the relationship between family income and children's test scores to be pretty stable over time. It's a well-known fact that the two are related,"Readon told the Stanford publication

Fareed Zakaria
"But the fact that the gap has grown substantially, especially in the last 25 years, was quite surprising, striking and troubling," he concluded.

Not surprising, but equally troubling was a recent post I saw on Fareed Zakaria's  GPS blog.

It suggests that as a society, we would rather imprison our youth then educate them.

"In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education," Zakaria wrote. 

"In 2011, California spent $9.6 billion on prisons, versus $5.7 billion on higher education. Since 1980, California has built one college campus; it's built 21 prisons. The state spends $8,667 per student per year. It spends about $50,000 per inmate per year."

As former Pottstown Borough Council President Jack Wolf once sagely said to me, "no matter what people say, look at their budget to see where their priorities are."

If that's true, and in a nation obsessed with wealth I think it's fair to assume it is, it is a sad commentary on what we have done to the American Dream Readon described and what Teddy Roosevelt, another president navigating the waters of an obscene wealth gap, used to call "the square deal."

An undated photo from the California Corrections Dept.
It's more than money, it's people.

"The total number of Americans under correctional supervision (prison, parole, etc.) is 7.1 million, more than the entire state of Massachusetts," wrote Zakaria.

He added that. "Adam Gopnik writes in the New Yorker, "Over all, there are now more people under 'correctional supervision' in America...than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height."

America was once the "land of opportunity," where even if you didn't want to conquer wall street, a good public education and a good work ethic meant a good shot at a good job and that could support a family without mortgaging their future.

But those jobs seem fewer and far between these days and more and more families continue to slip beneath the poverty line where, the Stanford study tells us, their children will be statistically less and less able to achieve in school, dooming them to repeat the cycle and increasing the likelihood they will end up behind bars.

When you look at the long view, it becomes obvious that in many ways, we are shooting ourselves in the foot because the status quo is simply unsustainable.

Consider this demographic inevitability -- we're getting older.

By 2030, seniors will be 20% of the U.S. population
According to this blog on The New York Times web site: "In 2008, an estimated 39 million people in the United States were 65 or older — just over 13 percent of the population. By 2030, when all surviving baby boomers will be over 65, the report projects there will be 72 million seniors, about 20 percent of the population."

"Living longer does not come cheaply, the blog reports. "After adjustment for inflation, annual health care costs for the average senior increased from $9,224 in 1992 to $15,081 in 2006."


So we will be living longer, have fewer people working to pay into Social Security and Medicare and have more people than ever requiring more expensive medical care.

By itself, this demographic is frightening enough.

But now multiply the fiscal impact by the number of people who could be educated and trained to contribute toward those costs, but who we are incarcerating instead, making them a drain on our  society and economy instead of a resource.

Is this the only option left for paying our
medical costs as seniors?
Scared yet?

I am.

To better understand how a drop in the number of working-age adults affects an economy supporting a large senior population, read Megan McArdle's excellent analysis of Europe's financial problems in this month's Atlantic magazine.

The basics are that for an economy to grow its way out of deficit, which is the more efficient and less painful way than cutting costs, it needs a steady population growth to provide the workers and consumers that will push the economy toward health.

It also needs young people who are at the start of their earning cycle, and willing to take risks, rather than those at the end who, quite naturally, want to conserve what they have to live their remaining years in comfort.

But now, even those who are not yet at the end of the earning cycle, want their pile to be bigger.

Not only is America getting demographically heavy at the tail end of the life cycle, we are hoarding the money and keeping it from funding an adequate education that not only provides productive citizens to pay for our golden years, but also keeps them out of jail.

Not only is this morally preferable, but it's far less expensive, to educate children rather than to imprison them.

(But for some reason, it's far less politically palatable. I would hate to think the reason for that is that,  according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, blacks makes up nearly 40 percent of the federal prison population but only 13 percent of the total population of the nation over all, according to the U.S. Census.)
Even Wall Street is starting to see the undeniable.

Not only is it wrong, it's unsustainable.

Even Wall Street is getting clued in to the fact that we are shooting ourselves in both feet.

A report last fall in Bloomberg noted that: "A widening gap between rich and poor is reshaping the U.S. economy, leaving it more vulnerable to recurring financial crises and less likely to generate enduring expansions."

"Left unchecked, the decades-long trend toward increasing inequality may condemn Wall Street to a generation of unimpressive returns and even shake social stability, economists and financial-industry executives say," Bloomberg reported.

Since 1980, about 5 percent of annual national income has shifted from the middle class to the nation’s richest households. That means the wealthiest 5,934 households last year enjoyed an additional $650 billion -- about $109 million apiece -- beyond what they would have had if the economic pie had been divided as it was in 1980, according to Census Bureau data, Bloomberg reported. 

“Income inequality in this country is just getting worse and worse and worse,” James Chanos, president and founder of New York-based Kynikos Associates Ltd., told Bloomberg Radio. “And that is not a recipe for stable economic growth when the rich are getting richer and everybody else is being left behind.”

Remember when we pledged that there would be "No Child Left Behind?"

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