American dream unreachable for most
This is the home of the American dream. In the U.S. we believe very firmly that with enough hard work, anyone can achieve their dreams. That is the magic of this country; there is so much opportunity that we firmly believe that all we need to do to succeed is put our nose to the grindstone and with enough time and effort, we will become the great American success story.
The middle class is chock full of optimistic people who are trying to achieve their version of success. They see the people at the top and believe that with enough time, enough effort, they too will be up there. Reality paints a different picture.
The wage gap in this country is widening. In a speech given by President Obama in December of 2013, he described "a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class American's basic bargain – that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead." Obama described this inequality as the defining challenge of our time.
Immediately following this speech, countless members of the media began postulating that Obama was inciting "class warfare" and that he wished to take the hard-earned dollars of the rich and give the money to lazy people who didn't want to support themselves.
In this country we view a lack of financial success as a result of laziness. We see the rich as success stories who have earned their wealth and to take it away...well that is something that is just not done.
I recently watched the documentary "Inequality for All" which was produced by Robert Reich, the former Secretary of Labor during the Clinton administration. Reich has authored 13 books, is a foremost expert on economics in this country, and is the Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkley. This documentary focused on the wealth accumulation of the top one percent of this county and the effect that this has had on the middle and lower classes.
The facts cited by this film are startling and the difference between the richest and the poorest Americans is even more so. The poorest 47 percent of Americans have no wealth. According to Reich, In 1983 the poorest 47 percent of America had $15,000 per family, or 2.5 percent of the nation's wealth. In 2009 the poorest 47 percent of America owns zero percent of the nation's wealth as their debt exceeds their assets. On the other extreme, the 400 wealthiest Americans own as much wealth as 80 million families, or 62 percent of America.
Why? Reich blames the stock market. Since 1980 the American GDP has approximately doubled but inflation-adjusted wages have gone down. Yet the stock market has increased over ten times and the richest quintile of Americans owns 93 percent of that wealth.
We want to say that those wealthiest Americans are our success stories: that they earned that wealth. But the facts show otherwise. A study was done on the Forbes 400 or the 400 wealthiest people in this country. The study was called "Born on Third Base". The study found that on the 2011 Forbes 400 list, 35% of the people on this list were found to have "been born in the batter's box." These are "Individuals who came from a lower- or middle-class background, ranging from those who were born into abject poverty to those whose parents owned a moderately sized business with only a few employees. These are our success stories.
However, 29.5 percent of those on the list were born on third base or even on home plate. This meant that they inherited at least $50 million dollars.
Another study done of 141 countries found that the U.S. has the fourth-highest degree of wealth inequality in the world trailing only Russia, Ukraine, and Lebanon.
I believe in the American dream as much as anyone but we in this country are almost delusional to think that with hard work we will become a part of the 1 percent or even the .01 percent. The chances are infinitesimally small: smaller than winning the lottery. And yet, there we are each day buying our ticket. We put in ridiculous hours at the office because working ONLY 40 hours a week seems lazy. We work multiple jobs, nights and weekends. Anything to "make it" in this country and we protect the wealthy with lower taxes because they earned their money.
The top 1 percent of this country has 20 percent of the entire nation's wealth. The top 1 percent has more of the nation's total wealth than the bottom 50 percent. The gap is only getting wider every year.
So how do we solve this problem? Reich offers a few solutions. He suggests we strengthen the voice of the American workers by maintaining unions. He suggests we invest in education. He suggests we repeal Citizen's United and get big money out of politics. Reich suggests Wall Street reform and also suggests tax reforms to combat policies that shifted taxes from the wealthiest Americans and big corporations onto the rest of us.
But first and foremost, Reich suggests raising the minimum wage which, when adjusted for inflation, has remained virtually stagnant for the past 30 years. If a recent citizen's initiative received the appropriate number of signatures, it will appear on the November ballot and Arkansans will have an opportunity to vote on raising the minimum wage in this state gradually over the next three years.
I believe in the American dream. But I also believe that without reform, the American dream will simply remain a dream for most.