WASHINGTON — Every nation has its founding myths, but ours are singular — brimful of ideas about self-reliance, entrepreneurship and egalitarianism. Americans are a people whose political and civic culture rely on the belief that any person can get ahead if he works hard enough, if he is determined enough, if he is resilient enough.
It’s a useful view that fuels the dynamism, creativity and resourcefulness that have made our economy the envy of the world. A people who believe they can do anything if they set their minds to it are bound to accomplish much of what they attempt.
But our smug acceptance of those Horatio Alger myths has also blinded us to reality: it is harder to get ahead in this country than we think. There isn’t as much economic mobility as we’ve been led to believe.
Research has shown that workers tend to get stuck in the same socio-economic bracket as their parents — especially those on the bottom half of the income ladder. If you are born in an upper-middle-class household, you may become fabulously wealthy. But if you’re born to parents earning working-class wages, it’s much less likely that you’ll end up among the affluent.
What accounts for the growing gulf between the haves and the lesser-haves? One primary cause: affluent and well-educated parents pass on multiple advantages to their children, starting with a more dynamic learning environment in those critical toddler years. According to early education experts, toddlers with parents from the professional class have much larger vocabularies when they start school — an advantage that boosts their performance on standardized tests.
Children without that advantage may work hard, they may be determined, they may be resilient, but they are unlikely to be able to overcome that gap. Their reading and writing skills won’t catch up with their more affluent peers. And they are less likely to be considered college material — a judgment that will affect their earning prospects for a lifetime.
That matters because our economy is rapidly shifting toward one that rewards those who can process information and think critically and creatively. Manufacturing jobs, which once promised decent wages and benefits to those without a high school diploma, are dying away.
In many areas, the only jobs available to those without college degrees are those that cannot be outsourced or moved abroad: farm labor, dependent care (children and the elderly) or services such as the beauty trade. And most of those jobs don’t pay well.
That dichotomy is especially apparent in urban areas such as Atlanta, New York or here in the nation’s capitol, where factories, if they ever existed, long since left town. And it’s one reason those cities are so amenable to less-educated immigrants: they don’t mind the low-paying service sector jobs that are available to them.
Ironically, a withering recession has led many Americans to believe that those immigrants are the problem: if they’d just leave, the U.S. economy would blossom with well-paying jobs for native-born Americans. That’s just not so. The income gap would continue to grow and the great middle-class would continue to shrink — even if we were suddenly able to round up all illegal immigrants and deport them.
The key to rejuvenating broad-based economic opportunity lies in re-tooling our public schools, encouraging academic accomplishment and broadening access to college. Free pre-kindergarten classes should be widely available; so should afternoon tutorial sessions for students who need help catching up with their more affluent peers. Indeed, the school-year — still averaging 180 days, based on an agrarian calendar — ought to be longer.
That’s a lot to do, but it’s not beyond our reach. A country with the can-do spirit distilled in our civic myths ought to be willing and able to change with the times.