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Rescuing the American Dream: From Newt Gingrich to the Economic Mobility Project, everyone agrees it starts with our kids

Rescuing the American Dream: From Newt Gingrich to the Economic Mobility Project, everyone agrees it starts with our kids

Austin Photo Set: News_christina pesoli_no more american dream_dec 2011_over

Sit down, Nation, I have some bad news.The American Dream has left you — and  maybe for good. When you were “busy” sitting on the couch in your sweats, inhaling that party-sized bag of nacho cheese flavored Doritos, slamming down one Bud Light after another, watching ESPN non-stop and deluding yourself about how much you have in common with the guys on TV who are actually doing something, the American Dream got sick of your lazy ways, packed her bags and headed for Europe. I know you thought it was just a girls’ trip, but she recently sent word that thinks she fits in better over there. So she cashed in her return ticket and rented a flat.

The Dear John letter took the form of a study by the Economic Mobility Project funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Apparently, when it comes to the ability of its citizens to move up the economic ladder, the U.S. fares the worst out of all of the countries included in the study. Now more than ever before, Americans at either end of the socio-economic spectrum are more likely to get stuck there. 

So, if you’re educated and wealthy in America, break out the caviar and champagne! But if you’re poor and uneducated: no soup for you.  

We think that hard work and ambition are the most important keys to moving up the ladder in America, but the data shows that’s not the case anymoreWe think that hard work and ambition are the most important keys to moving up the ladder in America, but the data shows that’s not the case anymore. 

That news is bad enough. But the picture goes from bad to pathetic when you consider this:  It’s not just that the American Dream has defected, but Americans still haven’t even noticed she’s gone. Two recent studies — one in 2009 and another earlier this year — show that over 70% of Americans believe that the U.S. still kicks some major ass when it comes to our ability to live the American Dream. We think that hard work and ambition are the most important keys to moving up the ladder in America, but the data shows that’s not the case anymore. 

All of this reminds me of an insight that my brother Peter gave me into the male psyche many years ago. He told me that most guys think they’re ten push-ups away from dating a super model. No matter how out of shape, no matter how immature, these guys believe that the only thing that separates them from getting off the couch and walking down the aisle with Gisele Bundchen is one set of push-ups.   

But there’s a reason why Gisele married Tom Brady and not Uncle Rico (other than the fact that Tom Brady is a real person and Uncle Rico a fictional character from the movie Napoleon Dynamite). Tom Brady makes things happen and gets stuff done, while Uncle Rico peaked in high school and now spends his time deluding himself about how much of a contender he still is.   

It strikes me that we Americans are acting a lot like Uncle Rico. But it’s not too late to get our act together. The first step is trading in our delusion about how great we are for some old-fashioned confidence — confidence that if we work hard we can reasonably expect to be rewarded with a brighter future. That gives us the motivation to get off the couch and get back in the game. Being delusional, on the other hand, turns us into a thirty-something year old man practicing football drills in front of his van to keep in shape until he can perfect his time machine and travel back to his high school glory days. See the difference?

So, what can we do to restore our confidence that our hard work will pay off? Idea-man Newt Gingrich pitched a plan recently that touched on this when he suggested that we rethink the laws in this country which prohibit child labor. Gingrich wants to be able to put to work “really poor children in really poor neighborhoods [who] have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works." Gingrich believes we should put these poor children to work scrubbing toilets and performing other jobs at school and elsewhere. He thinks his plan would both teach them a work ethic and give them money, which would in turn mean they wouldn’t “have to become a pimp or a prostitute or a drug dealer.”

 Poor kids in the U.S. don’t suffer from a lack of seeing the people around them work hard, they suffer from a lack of seeing people who work hard have their efforts pay off by being able to move out of poverty and up the economic ladder. 

Gingrich got into a lot of trouble for this statement, but I for one applaud him for using whatever courage he could muster to try to speak the truth — even if it only amounted to enough courage to come up with a half-truth. The real truth is that the majority of poor children in this country live in households with at least one working parent. At least that’s what the census data shows, if you’re into facts and figures and that sort of thing. The whole notion that most poor kids don’t see people around them working — and working hard — is a stereotype that is as inaccurate as it is unfair. Poor kids in the U.S. don’t suffer from a lack of seeing the people around them work hard, they suffer from a lack of seeing people who work hard have their efforts pay off by being able to move out of poverty and up the economic ladder. 

Given Gingrich's track record when it comes to relationships, we should have known better than to look to him for relationship advice. The fact is we’re never going to get the American Dream back by cutting poor kids out of the dream all together and limiting them to a closed universe of career options ranging from pimp, prostitute and drug dealer on the low end of the spectrum, to janitor on the high end. Rather than relaxing the vice grip of economic immobility, that approach would only serve to strengthen it.

But because I’m a “glass half full” type of person, I think we should focus on the true part of Gingrich’s half true statement. When you strip out the delusion, his criticism appears to be of laziness in kids. He aimed his remarks at poor kids, but Gingrich needs to remember that laziness is an equal opportunity offender. It’s no worse of a sin among the poor than among the rich. In fact, if the biblical wisdom “for of those to whom much is given, much is required” resonates with you at all, then laziness is arguably a greater sin in the rich than it is in the poor.  

The fact is everyone should know how to scrub a toilet. Even if you don’t end up with a job that requires you to do that for a living, and even if you’re lucky enough to get to the point where you don’t even have to scrub your own, you should at least have the appreciation for a clean toilet that can only be gleaned from firsthand experience. So, let’s teach all kids how to scrub toilets — from Winn Elementary in 78723 to Westlake High School in 78746. 

But teaching kids how to scrub toilets is not going to help us get the American Dream back. A closer look at the Dear John letter reveals something that will.  While the study doesn’t have all the answers to why the other countries enjoyed better economic mobility than the U.S., one important factor seemed to be this: children in France who had two or more years of pre-K made higher monthly wages as adults, which in turn translated into better upward economic mobility later in life. Thus, in countries like France where there is universal pre-K, more people seem to be able to move up the economic ladder. 

Providing kids with a well-rounded educational experience seems like a solid step in the right direction of maximizing their chances of moving out of poverty. Offering this opportunity to all kids in the U.S. would definitely improve our chances of coaxing the American Dream to move back home. And even though Gingrich doesn’t deserve credit for that plan, I still think he should get at least some credit for the toilet cleaning idea. 

After all, we don’t need another study to tell us that relationships fare better when everyone pitches in with the chores.