Equality, Opportunity, and the American Dream

Equal opportunity must and will remain the quintessential American ideal. The challenge is to live up to it.

READING, PA - OCTOBER 20: Isaac James, who cant find a job, eats lunch at the Central Park United Methodist Church which has a soup kitchen and food pantry on October 20, 2011 in Reading, Pennsylvania. The church feeds thousands of needy Reading residents monthly and relies on donations and volunteers to keep its increasingly popular programs operating. Reading, a city that once boasted numerous industries and the nation's largest railroad company, has recently been named America's poorest city with residents over 65,000. According to new census data, 41.3 percent of people live below the poverty line in Reading. Reading has about 90,000 residents, many of whom are recent Hispanic arrivals who have moved from larger eastern cities over the past decade. While a manufacturing base offering well paying jobs still exists in Reading, many companies like Hershey, Stanley Tool and Dana Systems have either moved elsewhere in the United States or to Mexico in search of cheaper labor. The number of people living in poverty in America, 46.2 million, is now at its highest level for the 52 years the Census Bureau has been keeping records.
National Journal
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Richard V. Reeves
Aug. 20, 2014, 1 a.m.

Richard V. Reeves is a fel­low at Brook­ings, where his re­search in­terests in­clude is­sues re­lated to so­cial mo­bil­ity, fam­il­ies and par­ent­ing, and in­equal­ity. Pri­or to his Brook­ings ap­point­ment, he was dir­ect­or of strategy to the UK’s Deputy Prime Min­is­ter; dir­ect­or of Demos, the Lon­don-based polit­ic­al think-tank; and so­cial af­fairs ed­it­or of The Ob­serv­er news­pa­per. Richard is also ed­it­or-in-chief of So­cial Mo­bil­ity Memos, a Brook­ings blog.

On a warm spring even­ing in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., a fleet of lim­ousines and town cars de­livered hun­dreds of guests, be­decked in black tie and long gowns, to a gala cel­eb­ra­tion of the Amer­ic­an Dream: the an­nu­al awards night for the Hor­a­tio Al­ger As­so­ci­ation of Dis­tin­guished Amer­ic­ans.

Twelve new mem­bers (11 men, one wo­man) were honored for hav­ing ris­en from child­hood poverty to po­s­i­tions as cap­tains of com­merce or cel­eb­rated pub­lic ser­vants. Colin Pow­ell, a 1991 award re­cip­i­ent, was among those in the audi­ence. The new mem­bers’ speeches were brief, strik­ing a bal­ance between pride and hu­mil­ity, and all hew­ing to the rags-to-riches theme: “Who would have thought that I, from a farm in Min­nesota/small town in Kan­sas/Little Rock, raised in an orphan­age/with no in­door plumb­ing/work­ing mul­tiple jobs at 16, would end up run­ning a $6 bil­lion firm/a U.S. am­bas­sad­or/em­ploy­ing 10,000 people. Only in Amer­ica!”

The cli­max of the even­ing came with the ar­rival on stage of more than 100 stu­dents from poor and troubled back­grounds to whom the So­ci­ety had awar­ded col­lege schol­ar­ships, an an­nu­al rite that over the years has dis­trib­uted more than $100 mil­lion to de­serving young people. Tom Sel­leck read to the 2014 schol­ars an in­spir­a­tion­al pas­sage of po­etry from Car­ol Sap­in Gold (“The per­son who risks noth­ing does noth­ing, has noth­ing and is noth­ing “¦”) and the Ten­ors sang “Forever Young” as a gi­ant Amer­ic­an flag was slowly un­furled from the ceil­ing. The ce­re­mony had the feel of an act of wor­ship and thanks­giv­ing be­fore the al­tar of the so­ci­ety’s name­sake. It was a genu­inely mov­ing ex­per­i­ence, even for me — and I’m a Brit.

Vivid stor­ies of those who over­come the obstacles of poverty to achieve suc­cess are all the more im­press­ive be­cause they are so much the ex­cep­tions to the rule. Con­trary to the Hor­a­tio Al­ger myth, so­cial mo­bil­ity rates in the United States are lower than in most of Europe. There are forces at work in Amer­ica now — forces re­lated not just to in­come and wealth but also to fam­ily struc­ture and edu­ca­tion — that put the coun­try at risk of cre­at­ing an os­si­fied, self-per­petu­at­ing class struc­ture, with dis­astrous im­plic­a­tions for op­por­tun­ity and, by ex­ten­sion, for the very idea of Amer­ica.

Many coun­tries sup­port the idea of mer­ito­cracy, but only in Amer­ica is equal­ity of op­por­tun­ity a vir­tu­al na­tion­al re­li­gion, re­con­cil­ing in­di­vidu­al liberty — the free­dom to get ahead and “make something of your­self” — with so­ci­et­al equal­ity. It is a philo­sophy of egal­it­ari­an in­di­vidu­al­ism. The meas­ure of Amer­ic­an equal­ity is not the in­come gap between the poor and the rich, but the chance to trade places.

In his second in­aug­ur­al ad­dress in 2013, Barack Obama de­clared: “We are true to our creed when a little girl born in­to the bleak­est poverty knows that she has the same chance to suc­ceed as any­body else, be­cause she is an Amer­ic­an; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”

Pres­id­ent Obama was not say­ing that every little girl does have that chance, but that she should. The mor­al claim that each in­di­vidu­al has the right to suc­ceed is im­pli­cit in our “creed,” the De­clar­a­tion of In­de­pend­ence, when it pro­claims “All men are cre­ated equal.” In his first draft of that his­tor­ic doc­u­ment, Thomas Jef­fer­son was more ex­pans­ive, writ­ing that all were cre­ated “equal and in­de­pend­ent.” Al­though the word was ed­ited out, the sen­ti­ment was not.

The De­clar­a­tion was a state­ment about the re­la­tion­ship between the United States and Great Bri­tain, but it was also a state­ment about Amer­ic­ans them­selves. The United States was to be a self-made na­tion com­prised of self-made men. Alex­is de Toc­queville — the first of many clev­er French­men to wow the Amer­ic­an read­ing classes — suf­fused his Demo­cracy in Amer­ica with ad­mir­a­tion of the young na­tion’s “manly and le­git­im­ate pas­sion for equal­ity,” while Ab­ra­ham Lin­coln ex­tolled his coun­try­men’s “geni­us for in­de­pend­ence.”

There is a simple for­mula here — equal­ity plus in­de­pend­ence adds up to the prom­ise of up­ward mo­bil­ity — which cre­ates an ap­peal­ing im­age: the na­tion’s so­cial, polit­ic­al, and eco­nom­ic land­scape as a vast, level play­ing field upon which all in­di­vidu­als can ex­er­cise their free­dom to suc­ceed. Hence the tod­dlers who show up at day­care cen­ters in T-shirts em­blazoned “Fu­ture Pres­id­ent.” Hence Amer­ic­ans’ cul­ture of com­pet­it­ive­ness, their ob­ses­sion with sports, their fre­quent and all-pur­pose ref­er­ences to “the rules of the game” and to “fair­ness.” Hence the pat­ri­ot­ism-tinged pride of the suc­cess­ful, ex­ult­ing not only in their own grit and prowess, but also in the mer­ito­crat­ic sys­tem that gave them scope and op­por­tun­ity.