April 18, 2008
The Land of False Hope
The American dream lives in the hearts of millions of people not just in America, but worldwide. This dream leads people to believe that hard work and perseverance can turn anyone from a low class worker to a middle class citizen. America as a whole appears to be living extravagantly; they all appear to be living the good life. The media spills forth stories of men that once lived on the streets and now own large corporations or of women that were left with nothing, but a houseful of children and now have patents for several multi-million dollar inventions. Stories like these make it appear as if movement between class lines is at an all time high. While class seems to be less of an issue in today's society, a closer examination proves that class lines still deeply divide America and because these lines run so deep, America's social structure is unlikely to experience much change.
As you drive down the streets of America, you can't help but notice that there are thousands of brand new cars coating the streets. As you walk through the local mall, you can't help but notice that nearly every woman is dressed to impress. As you make your way through country roads, where there used to be nothing, but orchards and farmland, you can't help but notice that now there are only gated communities with homes so large that they could house twenty people. On appearances alone, America seems to be thriving and our high-class citizens seem to be growing at rapid numbers. With news of our economy doing so poorly, why does it appear that there are so many wealthy people in America? The book Class Matters, a collaboration of pieces written by correspondents of The New York Times, states that class appears to be less of an issue, but in reality the lines are now deeper than ever. Some believe these divisions will change because of the ever-elusive American Dream, the feeble attempts at education reformation, and the way the people of America present themselves in society; however, I believe that class lines will stay as they are because of the extreme isolation and separation of the people in this country, the inheritance that makes and breaks people, and the vast extent of globalization.
It was less than a half of a century ago that it was easy to distinguish who belonged to what class. You could look at their clothes and know instantly what tax bracket they fell into. Only fifty years ago, you could look at the make and model of the family car and know if the patriarch of the family was a blue-collar worker or a corporate tycoon. It was just decades ago that the rich worshipped an Episcopalian god and the poor worshipped the god of their choice. In addition, in a country that was once torn apart by racism, it seems unimportant what color a person's skin is when it comes to the social makeup of the nation. It also used to be evident what class you belonged to by the political party that you supported. None of these things hold true anymore. Class lines seem to have faded and "some say they have disappeared" (Class 2). It now seems as if mobility, the ability to move from one class to another, is at an all time high. It now seems as if the American Dream is more obtainable.
In addition, the government is trying to take action to close the education gap among the people of America. In the past few years, several programs have been implemented to try to keep children on the right track when it comes to education. In Washington, one such program is the WASL. This testing program is to make certain that all high school students are on the path to ultimate success. In recent years, this program has not many results. The schools that were at the bottom of the education list ten years ago are still there today. What makes an education effective then? The answer is simple enough, money. The schools that are located in a generally richer demographic tend to offer a better education program. So while the government offers help through the form of tests, maybe what they should do is provide funding for the ill educated instead. Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of Nickel and Dimed, feels that the government turns a blind eye to the impoverished because they feel it is easier to avoid the situation than to correct it. The outcome of the pending presidential election could change it all. A new president could not only reform education, but could also provide health care for all Americans and help fight poverty by raising the national minimum wage and offering low-income, government subsidized housing in safe neighborhoods.
Yet another reason why many people feel that class lines are beginning to blur is the appearances of the low-income citizens. People are able to dress more extravagantly than they can afford, courtesy of thrift shops, retail stores, and swap meets. People like Joan, from Nickel and Dimed, may appear to be well off by the way that they present themselves, but they are in reality broke and homeless. The media also portrays a positive image for the people low on their luck by pumping out miracle stories of people that have risen above adversity and now live a high-class life. This causes the people of low-income America to have a "rags to riches faith" (Class 23). It is because of stories like these that "more Americans…believe it possible to start out poor, work hard, and become rich" (Class 5).
Unfortunately, most of this is a falsity. It is now harder in America to move up the social ladder because, first of all, the rich have isolated themselves in gated communities, private schools, and expensive country clubs. In today's society there is a
scramble to scoop up a house in the best school district, channel a child into the right preschool program, or land the best medical specialist…all [in] a quiet contest among social groups that the affluent and educated are winning. (Class 4)
The rich have the money to do such things and because of this, their children will take over their position in the upper class society. The rich also isolate themselves in a sense when it comes to medical care. The upper class citizens tend to have better insurance, meaning they can afford to see the doctor for almost anything. It is because of this that "class differences in health and life span are wide and appear to be widening" (Class 2).
Furthermore, the wealthy are able to pass on their class rankings to their children because in today's society "Americans are arguably more likely than they were thirty years ago to end up in the class into which they were born" (Class 4). To elaborate, the rich are able to use their money to place their children in exceptional education programs. This education will put them ahead in life. It will also present them with opportunities that they might have otherwise not experienced. Take Juan Manuel Peralta, from Class Matters, for example. He came from poor education and had no extra money to take courses to improve his English. Therefore, Peralta was stuck in a vicious cycle of minimum wage jobs, poor education, and slim opportunity. The rich on the other hand are at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Those in the upper echelon of society will stay there because their parents will pass on the wealth, education, and connections. Also, those in the upper class most often marry in the upper class, making them a part of an elite club that is near impossible to get into, taking nothing short of a miracle to join them.
There is also the fact that Americans seem to be living so richly because Americans are allowed to tumble into the dark trap of inescapable debt. Since globalization has brought expensive, high-class items to the mainstream market for a mainstream price, people are beginning to buy an excess of these items all in the hush-hush scurry to keep up with the "Joneses." While it is good for the self-esteem to buy such luxury items, it is not good for the pocketbook. Even if the items are "discount" they are excess luxuries, which are frivolous extra expenditures that are not needed in the average American household. At the same time, globalization and technology tarnish many opportunities for advancement on the social ladder because they are "killing jobs that were once stepping-stones to the middle class" (Class 19). These factors combined with many others have actually widened the gap between the rich and the poor and solidified the lines that separate them.
A dream is nothing more than a dream if there aren't goals, tears, and sweat behind them. In America, some are born lucky, but it is imperative to remember that their family hasn't always been that way. It took a lot of hard work for the rich to become rich and because of this they don't want others to be given the life of luxury so easily. It may be because of this that the lines that deeply divide America will not be erased any time soon. Maybe it is just human nature to have a pecking order that defines society. Perhaps class lines will never change and the world will always remain divided into three distinct categories, those that live in a life of poverty, those that live a mediocre lifestyle, and those that live in the life of afforded luxury.