After watching the video below, please tell me if the American Dream is really still presently attainable in the United States.
I understand that what I may be leading myself into here is a very (very) complex issue that might be too simplified, but then again maybe not. I would like to think that simplicity might be just what we need to finally break down the idea Americans seem to have ‘that it is my fault as an individual that I am in the predicament that I am in’, be that socioeconomically poor, living at or below the poverty line or elsewhere on the graph. We make our beds, no matter what.
“From dishwasher to millionaire” is one of my students favorite saying about the American Dream, similar to the saying, “from rags to riches“, which assumes that one believes they can go from one end of the graph to the other. The reality is that this outcome is really very unlikely. Americans like stories of underdogs making it against all the odds and the more real the story the better, even if it is Hollywood telling the story or the local nightly news – the reality is that the odds are against us, especially these days. Americans are optimistic if nothing else though. We’d rather hear our politicians tell us hyperbolic stories and sound bites than the truth of the matter, because we too often live that truth.
I am not quite sure Americans or America may ever be comfortable with the brutal honesty that may be required to help better distribute the wealth and hard work in our country. Every person who works believes they work hard, whether they actually do or not is rather subjective. To tell a worker who feels they work very hard that they need to work harder, or that their work is not as meaningful or significant as another person’s just because society doesn’t seem to value them equally is a true injustice which helps perpetuate this major income inequality and American’s collective acceptance of it.
I’ve been rereading The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair and this particular passage from chapter 12 really struck me as being highly relevant today in America too with regard to many of the people in the 47%, or the 1% or the 99%. The most significant section is in bold text, but the rest offers more context and food for thought:
This time, however, Jurgis did not have the same fine confidence, nor the same reason for it. He was no longer the finest-looking man in the throng, and the bosses no longer made for him; he was thin and haggard, and his clothes were seedy, and he looked miserable. And there were hundreds who looked and felt just like him, and who had been wandering about Packingtown for months begging for work. This was a critical time in Jurgis’ life, and if he had been a weaker man he would have gone the way the rest did. Those out-of-work wretches would stand about the packing houses every morning till the police drove them away, and then they would scatter among the saloons. Very few of them had the nerve to face the rebuffs that they would encounter by trying to get into the buildings to interview the bosses; if they did not get a chance in the morning, there would be nothing to do but hang about the saloons the rest of the day and night. Jurgis was saved from all this—partly, to be sure, because it was pleasant weather, and there was no need to be indoors; but mainly because he carried with him always the pitiful little face of his wife. He must get work, he told himself, fighting the battle with despair every hour of the day. He must get work! He must have a place again and some money saved up, before the next winter came.
But there was no work for him. He sought out all the members of his union—Jurgis had stuck to the union through all this—and begged them to speak a word for him. He went to every one he knew, asking for a chance, there or anywhere. He wandered all day through the buildings; and in a week or two, when he had been all over the yards, and into every room to which he had access, and learned that there was not a job anywhere, he persuaded himself that there might have been a change in the places he had first visited, and began the round all over; till finally the watchmen and the “spotters” of the companies came to know him by sight and to order him out with threats. Then there was nothing more for him to do but go with the crowd in the morning, and keep in the front row and look eager, and when he failed, go back home, and play with little Kotrina and the baby.
The peculiar bitterness of all this was that Jurgis saw so plainly the meaning of it. In the beginning he had been fresh and strong, and he had gotten a job the first day; but now he was second-hand, a damaged article, so to speak, and they did not want him. They had got the best of him—they had worn him out, with their speeding-up and their carelessness, and now they had thrown him away! And Jurgis would make the acquaintance of others of these unemployed men and find that they had all had the same experience. There were some, of course, who had wandered in from other places, who had been ground up in other mills; there were others who were out from their own fault—some, for instance, who had not been able to stand the awful grind without drink. The vast majority, however, were simply the worn-out parts of the great merciless packing machine; they had toiled there, and kept up with the pace, some of them for ten or twenty years, until finally the time had come when they could not keep up with it any more. Some had been frankly told that they were too old, that a sprier man was needed; others had given occasion, by some act of carelessness or incompetence; with most, however, the occasion had been the same as with Jurgis. They had been overworked and underfed so long, and finally some disease had laid them on their backs; or they had cut themselves, and had blood poisoning, or met with some other accident. When a man came back after that, he would get his place back only by the courtesy of the boss. To this there was no exception, save when the accident was one for which the firm was liable; in that case they would send a slippery lawyer to see him, first to try to get him to sign away his claims, but if he was too smart for that, to promise him that he and his should always be provided with work. This promise they would keep, strictly and to the letter—for two years. Two years was the “statute of limitations,” and after that the victim could not sue.
What happened to a man after any of these things, all depended upon the circumstances. If he were of the highly skilled workers, he would probably have enough saved up to tide him over. The best paid men, the “splitters,” made fifty cents an hour, which would be five or six dollars a day in the rush seasons, and one or two in the dullest. A man could live and save on that; but then there were only half a dozen splitters in each place, and one of them that Jurgis knew had a family of twenty-two children, all hoping to grow up to be splitters like their father. For an unskilled man, who made ten dollars a week in the rush seasons and five in the dull, it all depended upon his age and the number he had dependent upon him. An unmarried man could save, if he did not drink, and if he was absolutely selfish—that is, if he paid no heed to the demands of his old parents, or of his little brothers and sisters, or of any other relatives he might have, as well as of the members of his union, and his chums, and the people who might be starving to death next door (n.p., Gutenburg.org).
**While I don’t always support reading the comments of posts like the video above on the Mashable site, for further context about how Americans feel about this issue I do encourage you to scroll through some of them at your leisure. Of course, some of the commenter are simply trolls, but some comments address decent questions and offer insightful responses.
As always I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter, so please feel free to leave me a comment.