As a humanities major, I have at times come to feel woefully unprepared for entrance into a world in which concepts such as ‘the bottom line,’ ‘efficiency,’ and ‘empirical evidence’ seem to be the order of the day. You see, ours, dear readers, is a world in which one is largely trained to make interesting observations on the human condition, which by virtue of trying to describe the myriad and complicated social-interactions between individuals can be in itself a trying, and more often then not, long-winded, exercise. Given the complexities associated with the study of ‘humans’ and their interesting social, cultural and political forms, it is exceedingly helpful if not necessary to sometimes wander into the world of tools best suited for objective analysis. I’m of course talking about those scary fields such as statistics, regressions, econometrics and the sort. Unlike the hard sciences however, I’ve found that even when one applies these sorts of tools it is exceedingly difficult to derive a tangible ‘law’ that adequately governs the dynamics of social behavior. Though models of social, political, cultural or economic behavior may not hold in all cases however, there are a few which come pretty darn close to being spot on in most cases.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about one of these ‘laws.’ This past week I was in Trenton, working with a local ministry that provides emergency food and financial assistance to area families. Needless to say, the contrasts between the town of Princeton and the City of Trenton are enough to jar the conscience. While the root causes of poverty remain a highly controversial topic, often times falling tragically somewhere along the worn-out dichotomy of ‘pull-yourself-up-by-your-boot-straps-self-sufficiency’ and a pervasive victim mentality, a few things are apparent upon your first visit to Trenton. The first, and perhaps most striking, is the degree to which poverty has become cyclical. For those non-WWS majors among you, cyclical poverty indicates (among other things) that who your parents are is highly predictive of what your station in life will be. Put bluntly, if you are a black child growing up in Center City Trenton, you have a much higher risk of ending up in a poor school, dropping out of high school or being involved in some sort of violent activity. This is not to say that these behaviors are a function of race. Far from it. That sort of racial determinism is in itself a logical fallacy and socially irresponsible besides. What it does suggest however is that due to our current socio-political organization, who you are at birth is becoming more of a determinant of what you will become than ever before.
Take for example a recent study conducted by the PEW Institute, a non-partisan charitable trust dedicated to improving the quality of public policy research, which looked at the relationship between one’s socio-economic position at birth and at the end of their life. In the 1950s, a US citizen born into the lowest quartile of earners had a pretty good shot at making into the top quartile of earners by the end of their lifetime. So good in fact, that of the top eight industrialized nations at the time, we ranked number one. Nearly sixty years later, in 2008, we have seen a dramatic reversal. A child born today in the lowest quartile of earners has a pretty high probability of staying in that quartile for the rest of his or her life. It only compounds the tragedy of this fact that these children are most likely of Hispanic or African American decent. As a country, we now fill out the bottom of the list when it comes to being able to ‘pill-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps.’ In other words, if the persistent notion of the American dream is to own your own home, provide well for your family and drive your own car, most of us would probably be better off moving to Europe.
Now, in an attempt to save any future political career I may choose to have, I will say that I am very proud to be an American. Our country ranks among the most ‘free’ in the world and our levels of inequality rank among the lowest in the world. The fact remains however that while things are good, they aren’t as good as they once were, and I fear they may get worse if we as a country don’t recognize and respond to troubling indicators such as these.
As far as I can tell, anyone who believes in the ‘American dream’ should be outraged by statistics such as these. After all, the great dream of our founding lay in the possibility that free men and women could establish for themselves an aristocracy of ability and achievement; a place in which the content of one’s character and extent of one’s drive to succeed would determine a person’s position in life, rather than the antiquated holdings of nobility and title. If we can see this dream is beginning to dim, where then is the public outrage? To be sure, for some the growth of inequality in our country is a cause for great alarm. But for many, the traditional notion that the poor should just work themselves out of poverty continues to be a seductive and powerful idea, if not a myopia, even though a mounting body of evidence shows it to be little more than a fantasy.
There are of course a series of relevant political, social and economic reasons for the persistence of the notion that ‘work shall set you free.’ And those are all well and good. But at a more basic level, this debate should tell us something about how contemporary Americans have come to imagine their country, or in other words, to dream about America. Since the Regan revolution, American politics has become dominated by another seemingly unbreakable dichotomy. On the one hand lay social conservatives, who have found a safe haven in the Republican Party, who feel that American politics and America herself should be aligned with a set of well defined cultural values. While issues matter, they matter perhaps a little less than the state of American culture. That is to say that the prime calculus of America’s greatness is her ability to defend and embody a series of Judeo-Christian cultural morays. On the other side of the spectrum are the ‘liberals.’ This strange breed of political thinkers likes to declare that what matters most in American society is not so much that we strictly adhere to a set of moral and cultural values, but rather that America remain a place in which one’s own moral and cultural conscience can be freely expressed.
The sticky part of all of this is that when we talk about public morality and cultural values, one should always ask: whose cultural values are we trying to protect? For the past thirty years, ‘culture’ has come to mean an opposition to gay marriage, the idea that women’s rightful place is in the home, and a general fear that ‘others’, such as migrants from Mexico and further abroad, threaten our American way of life. At a time when the American people face challenges both at home and abroad, the circumstance under which we all live require moving beyond these issues which have become increasingly stale. If we want to see real movement, or change for that matter, perhaps we all need to engage ourselves in a debate about what values American culture should defend or at least try to uphold. For me, the America I dream about is one in which a child growing up in Trenton, NJ has just as good an opportunity at achieving his or her dreams as a child born in Princeton, NJ. For a ‘liberal’, this may sound like focusing on issue politics, say in this case poverty alleviation. I find this observation, which recently found its way onto the editorial page of the New York Times, too narrow. Because, at its base, my concern for equality is founded upon a strong conviction that our culture should engender in its citizens distaste for inequality and a desire to protect each person’s ability to determine their own future.
In an election where both candidates for President profess a faith that teaches a preferential option for the poor, it is lamentable that there has yet to be a real discussion about equality in American society. As has been the case for the past five election cycles, we continue to engage in a debate that pits “cultural” against “issue driven” politics. And as we have seen through the rancor and divisiveness of the past several months, this sort of debate is far from productive in terms of addressing America’s growing state of inequality. Perhaps then we who imagine a different America, one that is more fair, more equal and more prosperous for every one of its citizens, should not shy away from engaging in a debate about what American culture should look like. Instead of avoiding the vocabulary of a cultural-political discourse, we should actively engage in a dialogue about the values we hold dear and demand that government act upon them. I’m proud to say that I dream of an America where men can marry men, where people are paid a living wage and where there is equality of opportunity. And you should be too.