“They’re Drowning in it”

I have a very strange relationship with the American Dream. I’m sort of living it.

I tell my students every semester that me, the guy standing in front of them, is the poster child for what they want to do.  I was poor growing up.  I didn’t have a lot.  But I worked hard.  I took advantage of opportunities given to me, I forged my path, I pushed myself up from Community College to a Four year College to a Master’s Program and then I worked and worked until I got a Part-time teaching job and then I got a Full-time teaching job and now I’m what I’ve always wanted to be,  Professor (technically an Assistant Professor).  I am what you want!  I am proof that the American Dream is real and working!

But, I leave a large chunk out of that story, don’t I?  I was poor, so poor that my parents received Government assistance for years.  I remember getting these little yellow tickets that would allow me to get free breakfast, because we couldn’t afford it.  I remember hating the powdered milk we got, but loving the government block of cheese. I loved that stuff! We had a special cheese cutter and, I’m sorry, there was no better grilled cheese than with the Government cheese.  I remember when we stopped getting it.  I looked at my Mom and asked her if we could get more and she looked at me a bit confused and a bit annoyed.  We didn’t need to get it anymore because we weren’t broke anymore. I wanted us to be broke so we could get it! What a conflict.

When I went to Community College, I did work and pay my way through.  But when I went to the Four-year school, I never would have made it without Student loans.  Sure, I could have tried to get grants and scholarships, but the amount of work you have to do to fill out that paper work is almost as much as working a full job.  Student Loans, those hand-outs, my collecting of debt, was the only way I was going to make it.  I stopped working in my Master’s program because of my loans, because of the debt.  I wanted to write and study and be a Teacher’s Assistant.  I didn’t want to work 40 hours a week on top of that.  Getting a job after college was my only focus, so much of my only focus that I didn’t pay any attention to getting a house.  And I had a firm “No Relationship” rule, barring me from long entanglements.  How can I get serious with a woman and all that when I barely have any money, working two jobs, trying to get my career off the ground?  Yes, I have my dream. I have the job I’ve always wanted.  The house, the car, the wife, the children, the BBQs, all that other crap has been sidelined, however.  Yes, you can achieve what you want.  But it’s a damn struggle, and you’ll need help along the way.

That’s sort of why the video of Mitt Romney that was revealed this week hit home to me.  Everyone wants the American Dream. We are not, no matter what you say, born equal.  The guy born to a rich father and mother who have the resources to love and help that baby has a better shot of achieving his goals than the guy born to a former crack addict working three jobs and never having weekends off.  We KNOW this is true.  We KNOW it.  But we REFUSE to admit it.  Because once we say, “People aren’t born equal” then it is our responsibility as a society to understand why people aren’t born equal and then work to make up the difference using our collective resources.  This has always been the fundamental contradiction of the American Dream.  We expect everyone to try and achieve it, even though we know that some people never will achieve it.

Two writers took this subject and looked at it in different ways.  Jennifer Rubin, a conservative “columnist” (and I use that word so loosely), wrote:

The “two visions” message, which both he and running mate Paul Ryan have pounded for some time, posits that Obama wants a bigger government with more people receiving federal benefits of one type or another, while Romney-Ryan want to foster an “opportunity society,” in which individuals help themselves. Romney is delighted to have that argument so long as he can clean up the less attractive parts of his comments to donors…..Romney has stumbled (or been forced) into a debate about the size of government, the extent of the safety net and the cost of maintaining a government with more and more people receiving benefits. That topic is a good one for Romney, provided he can sharpen his rhetoric and make clear that an opportunity society works for everyone, especiallythose who would like to move up the ladder of success.

She’s basically saying that we should have a society that allows you the opportunity to achieve, by giving you a chance to work or giving you a chance to have less taken out of your taxes.  A smaller government with more “freedom.”  Conservatives believe that people don’t take responsibility for themselves because the government gives people no reason to.

Ezra Klein, a more liberal columnist, has a different take:

The thing about not having much money is you have to take much more responsibility for your life. You can’t pay people to watch your kids or clean your house or fix your meals. You can’t necessarily afford a car or a washing machine or a home in a good school district. That’s what money buys you: goods and services that make your life easier, that give you time and space to focus on what you want to focus on….The problem is living the dream has blinded him to other people’s reality. His comments evince no understanding of how difficult it is to focus on college when you’re also working full time, how much planning it takes to reliably commute to work without a car, how awful it is to choose between skipping a day on a job you can’t afford to lose and letting your sick child fend for herself. The working poor haven’t abdicated responsibility for their lives. They’re drowning in it.

This debate won’t be resolved with an election, and it won’t be solved in our life times, or ever.  It is,though, a debate that matters.  It is something you should think about.



2 thoughts on ““They’re Drowning in it”

  1. But one thing you won’t find any debate over, Jay? Government cheese. Find me any formerly impoverished American child and he’ll agree, that shit is delicious!

    • It is, honestly, the BEST cheese ever. I wonder if that’s because we ate it as kids, or because it’s honest-to-god awesome cheese?

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