Class Rules Everything Around Me: Cold Water on the American Dream
When I was a little girl I changed my mind a million times on what I wanted to be when I grew up. My version of achieving the American Dream meant that with a career of my choosing I could start from my middle class background and make it to be filthy rich if I wanted. At the time my desired career choices seemed equally attainable. What could possibly stop me from living the lifestyle of the rich and famous if I so chose? And then as I got older I ran into a few road blacks. Little things like GRE scores, student loans, internships that offered experience, but no pay – I could go on and on. The once immutable confidence I had on achieving my version of the American Dream was shaken. After Brown v. Board of Education it seemed that school would now truly be the great equalizer. Every child, regardless of race, would now have access to great schools - or so we thought. Looking back through the stingy lens of income equality, it seems that the Brown v. Board of Education decision should have also included the words regardless of race AND class. Sure every child can and should have access to great schools, but only if their mama’s and daddy’s income is at least two to three times the median household income ($53,046). Did you know that the 10 richest school districts median incomes ranged from $175,766 to $238,000? And that among the 10 wealthiest districts, between 48% and 64% earned $200,000. (Nationally, only 5.4% of households earned more than that.) The most affluent Black neighborhoods in America have access to quality schools, but the average family income ranges from about $77,000 to a little over $157,000. Moreover, children born in poverty, who are disproportionately children of color, have a four in 10 chance of remaining there as an adult, and a very slim chance (between 4 percent and 10 percent) of making it to the top. Conversely, close to 4 in 10 children who start at the top stay at the top. So how does one achieve the illusive American Dream with all the income inequality surrounding us? Not one of my grandparents finished high school. When my parents became first generation college graduates they were making a shift or change in the family’s financial dynamic. A college degree moved them from poverty to middle class. Before my mama went to college she had plans after she graduated high school to work in the nearby laundry, instead she was able to go to college and become a teacher. My daddy may have worked in the factory like his father, but because of sports he was able to attend college too. College completion in effect changed the financial fate of not only my parents’ lives but the fate of my sister and me as well. Studying and working hard in school are necessary. But the fact of the matter is that if my mama and daddy had raised me and my sister on a factory worker and laundress salary we would have had a grossly different educational outcome than we live today. One might say then that my parents achieved the American Dream: starting from the bottom and making it to the top with hard work and perseverance. But they will also tell you that their trip out of poverty was not only due to hard work. Rather their success was also due in part to the working and middle class people they met along the way who gave them a chance and provided information about scholarships, financial aid and where to find help from others who were willing to lend them a hand out of poverty. That’s what helped them achieve the ‘American Dream’, that has been my experience too and I hope it will continue for our children as well.
What do you tell your children about the American Dream?