How Do You Measure The ‘American Dream?’

The question of class mobility has come to define the “American Dream” in political discourse. And, although this post will take a bit of a contrarian position, it is absolutely inarguable that there is a problem with economic immobility today that is having a very depressing impact on the way we communicate to solve problems and on our freedoms in general. But this is not how you go about making that point.

There are many accepted indicators of whether a person has “done everything right” but the most important such indicators have traditionally included college advancement (graduation and especially graduate degrees), marriage, and home ownership.

The original graphic is a classic example of a complex topic simplified into uselessness. When I look at the graph, I see that, in fact, college grads who started poor move up to the middle classes and stay there at much higher rates than rich kids who drop out of high school (yay!)…but somehow the Post comes away with the misleading headline: Poor kids who do everything right don’t do better than rich kids who do everything wrong.

Really? This only looks at the shear proportions who “graduate college” vs. “drop out of high school” – that can hardly be seen as “doing everything right” vs. “getting everything wrong”. What did the college grads major in? There is ample research supporting the conclusion that most college majors these days are bad long term investments. What did the rich kids who didn’t finish HS go on to do? Were they drop-outs because they had alternative plans? Did they pick up a trade?

And more to the point – how many of those poor kids had good parenting examples at home upon which to build the foundations of healthy marriages?

Slate takes on many of my same talking points here. They mention other confounding factors, and note the misleading nature of the Post’s article title. Props to them!

But they make the unfortunate logical leap that there is something inherently wrong with a system where not all poor college grads do well later in life, or that the forces leading to their remaining in poverty are things we can fix.

An excerpt:

The real issue, as O’Brien points out, is that rich kids enjoy lots of advantages that keep them from falling to the very bottom of income distribution, and sometimes those advantages keep them at the very top. They might be able to go to work for family businesses, for instance, or family friends. Researchers like Brookings’ Richard Reeves call that collection of advantages “the glass floor.” Educated poor kids are in the exact opposite position. Many attend second- or third-rate (and possibly for-profit) colleges that churn out less-than-useful degrees. And instead of a floor propping them up, their families and friends can act like an anchor pulling them down. A classic example: a college-educated woman who goes home and marries a boyfriend who never made it past high school and has trouble holding down a job.

Emphasis mine. Notice the not-so-subtle insinuation that colleges that operate for profit are bad for the poor, and that the less-useful degrees are not to be found in the halls of elite, expensive colleges, only those second rate low-end state schools or the aforementioned dirty capitalist institutions. Of course, even top end colleges (including the ivy leagues) are now offering degrees in a wide array of financially useless liberal arts curricula. Also notice the suggestion that the problem isn’t with the failure of people raised in poverty to establish and keep stable families, but that those families are holding them back. They’re getting it exactly backwards. Every credible study on the persistence of poverty finds that single parents and people who suffer divorce are the most likely to get stuck in poverty.

So let’s summarize the position of Slate’s team (and likely that of the Washington Post):

1) Economic mobility continues to be problematic at best for the poorest Americans, even with hard work.
2) Graduating from college is a mark of hard work.
3) Hard work should be rewarded with a high rate of success.
4) If we could separate the poor from the things that hold them back (especially their struggling families and their alternative education sources), they would thrive.

If the writers at Slate would like to address the problem of hard-working, driven poor people being less able to move up the economic ladder than (perhaps) would be ideal, I suggest that they stop grinding political axes and start looking at the hard data. The data all indicates that the leading indicator for economic immobility is single parenthood, and that children of single parents are more likely to also be single parents themselves later in life. Get to the root of the problem and you find that this is not something that government can forcefully correct – and frankly, I’d be terrified if they tried.

  • Brad Warbiany

    FYI the knock on the for-profit colleges isn’t necessarily to demonize profit… It’s because a lot of these institutions are remarkably shady…

    Recommend checking out this segment on John Oliver’s HBO program: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8pjd1QEA0c

  • SABRMatt

    Every attempt at an argument that for-profit universities are “shady” that I’ve ever seen has come from someone with a clear political agenda. I would like to see some complete data on the subject of return-on-investment if I’m to believe that the for-profit model is likely to be a significant cause of a lack of upward mobility.

  • Brad Warbiany

    I’m not sure its a significant cause of a lack of upward mobility, but I’m also not convinced that most of these schools are actually creating upward mobility, which is what you’d expect them to do. And if their graduates are counted in the “poor college graduate” pool, it’s entirely possible that they’re skewing the results.

    But there’s a reason that I didn’t bring up Bill Maher’s stuff on for-profit colleges instead of his fellow HBO host John Oliver. Bill Maher has a particular ideological axe to grind. Based on what I’ve seen from John Oliver so far, he’s not particularly ideological. He just loves grinding axes, and took this one on.

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