Posts Tagged ‘security’

Poverty and the American Dream

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator




Brookings Institute: Poverty Report


Chapter 1:


In 1931, the writer James Truslow Adams coined the term “The American Dream.” His definition holds up well today. The dream, he said, is of a land in which: life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are … capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.1

Today, many Americans fear that our country is no longer a land of opportunity. Although social mobility overall seems not to have decreased in recent decades,2 there is evidence that it is lower in America than in many other advanced economies.3 Scholars on both the left and the right are also increasingly worried that children growing up today in lower-income families have fewer social supports and pathways into the middle class than in past generations. As Robert Putnam showed in his recent book Our Kids, 4 children from wellto-do families today enjoy more material, emotional, and educational support than ever before, but children from low-income families often grow up in homes, schools, and communities that are in disarray. Charles Murray reached similar conclusions in Coming Apart. 5

The trends aren’t entirely bleak, and poor children today are better off in several ways than they were a few decades ago. They have better access to healthcare, fewer of them are born to teen mothers, their parents have more education, they are exposed to fewer environmental toxins and violence, and fewer live in foster care. We should celebrate these advances. But the circumstances and outcomes of upper-income children have improved even more rapidly, leading to ever-widening inequality in the human and financial resources that boost child development. And on a few important factors, such as family stability, the circumstances of poor children have gotten worse.

The reasons for the increasing gaps between childhoods in different social classes are many and intertwined, including: the loss of manufacturing jobs, stagnating wages for workers without a college degree, labor-saving technological changes, changing relationships between workers and management, the increasing importance of education and training in a post-industrial economy, a less energetic civil society, high rates of incarceration, weaker attachment to the labor force among less-educated men, and the rising prevalence of single-parent families among the less-educated.

The poor prospects for children born into poor families are an urgent national concern. This state of affairs contradicts our country’s founding ideals. It weakens the promise that inspired so many immigrants to uproot themselves from everything familiar to seek freedom, self-determination, and better lives for their children in America. It holds particularly grave implications for the well being of blacks and for the future of racial equality so courageously fought for over the course of generations.

At its best, the American credo of freedom and individual initiative has been uniquely able to unleash the energy and imagination of its citizens, inspiring them, as Adams put it, “to attain to the fullest stature of which they are capable.”6 For many American families—including many low-income families—that dream is still possible. But large numbers of children live in disadvantaged and often chaotic homes and communities, attend schools that don’t prepare them to navigate an increasingly complex economy, and have parents (often a single parent) who work in low-wage jobs with variable and uncertain hours. The massive waste and loss of this human potential costs the United States in economic terms, and it is a tragedy in human terms. Most Americans would agree that we can do better.

The political difficulty arises when we turn to solutions. Most new ideas for helping the poor are controversial and expensive, and when one political party offers a proposal, the other party usually disagrees with its premises or specifics. The parties often have deep philosophical differences, but research also shows that the mere fact that one party proposes an idea can motivate partisans on the other side to dismiss it.7 And yet, points of agreement are emerging that could serve as a foundation for consensus. Most Americans and their political representatives tend to agree on several key points.

  1. First, for able-bodied Americans, it is far better to earn money than to depend on public assistance, although economic conditions sometimes prevent people from becoming self-sufficient.
  2. Second, children are on average better off growing up with two parents committed to each other for the long term, an arrangement most likely to occur within the context of marriage.
  3. And third, our schools don’t adequately prepare the young for the economic and social environment in which they must make their way.


Our report has three distinctive features.

  1. the diversity of our perspectives and experiences.    We share an intense belief that poverty and opportunity are profoundly consequential and that our nation’s future prosperity and our common humanity compel us to work together to find credible strategies to reduce poverty and increase economic mobility.
  2. we consider three major domains of life simultaneously: family, work, and education.    they are highly interconnected. Improving family stability helps children succeed in school; improving the fit between schools and jobs helps teenagers transition into the labor force; when young people can find work that pays well, they create more stable families, and the cycle continues.
  3. it is grounded in values—the three broadly shared American values of opportunity, responsibility, and security. Focusing on these shared values has made it easier for us to work together and find many points of agreement.

OPPORTUNITY The concept of “opportunity” draws nearly universal support among Americans, and it’s the core concept of the American Dream. We endorse Truslow Adams’ definition of opportunity as the state of affairs when “each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are capable,” regardless of the circumstances of their birth.8

RESPONSIBILITY America is a free society, but freedom comes with responsibilities. Responsibility is the state of being accountable for things over which one has control, or has a duty of care. Family life is a network of mutual responsibilities. So is work life. So is democratic citizenship.

The values of responsibility and opportunity are closely linked in the American mind. We can see the link in a line from President Clinton’s 1993 Labor Day speech that has had bipartisan resonance: We’ll think of the faith of our parents that was instilled in us here in America, the idea that if you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll be rewarded with a good life for yourself and a better chance for your children.10 The converse of this assertion is that if you fail to be responsible—if you don’t work hard or don’t play by the rules, then you aren’t entitled to a reward. These linked values of responsibility and opportunity were the linchpins of the bipartisan welfare reform law of 1996—whose official name included both “Personal Responsibility” and “Opportunity.”11

SECURITY Despite our best efforts to care for ourselves, we all know that life sometimes resembles a lottery.   The central idea of insurance is that we are all better off pooling some of the risks of life, and hoping that we never get to recover our insurance premiums.

Friedrich Hayek, an economist who was wary of collectivism in most forms and who is widely admired by conservatives, endorsed the value of security in 1944 in this famous passage from The Road to Serfdom: There is no reason why, in a society which has reached the general level of wealth ours has . . . should not be guaranteed to all . . . some minimum of food, shelter and clothing, sufficient to preserve health. Nor is there any reason why the state should not help to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance in providing for those common hazards of life against which few can make adequate provision.12

Several decades of research show that increasing security for children can better prepare them to break the cycle of poverty and grow up to be more responsible adults. A child’s brain is highly malleable. In the early years, when it is growing rapidly, the young brain responds to cues about the kind of environment that surrounds it. When children are raised in a chaotic and unpredictable environment, they become more attracted to immediate rewards, rather than larger but more distant rewards.13   Although children have great resilience and the capacity to overcome their early environment, some children—especially if they don’t have the benefit of interventions that reduce the stress to which they are exposed—are overwhelmed by early stress and trauma and suffer permanent damage.16

Conversely, when children are raised in more stable and predictable environments, they are more likely to learn that it pays to defer gratification and reap larger rewards in the future. Low stress, high predictability, and strong, stable relationships with caring adults all help children become measurably better at self-regulating, delaying gratification, and controlling their impulses.17 If we want adult citizens who can exercise responsibility, we should do as much as we can to improve the security of childhood, especially among the poor.

These three values guide the rest of our report. We offer a comprehensive plan for reducing poverty and promoting economic opportunity in the United States. In each chapter, we evaluate the best evidence about current approaches and then recommend policies that will increase opportunity, encourage people to take greater responsibility for their own lives, and increase security, especially among lower-income Americans and their children.

In the final chapter, we summarize our recommendations and suggest how the nation can pay for the policies we propose. We also lay out a path by which our recommendations might be carried out, evaluated, and improved, despite America’s political polarization. We have negotiated and compromised to create a plan that we believe is the best way forward. We are all enthusiastic about the final product because we believe it will reduce poverty and increase opportunity in America.


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