America, the land of opportunity. The country where you can work hard, be free, and realize the American Dream. This “dream” has drawn many people to the United States, a society that has been historically based on capitalism. An economic marketplace where you’re free to become fabulously wealthy or discouragingly poor.
Unfortunately, many in the United States have found that with the freedom to fail, they often do. Hard work does not guarantee success, a lesson that Jurgis Rudkus, a character in “The Jungle,” learns the hard way. When faced with setbacks, his motto is, “I will work harder.” Yet, despite his efforts, he gets nowhere (Sinclair 1906.) Similar to Jurgis, many American’s today are experiencing difficulties with our capitalist society. Consequently, our society has become more open to socialism.
The defining feature of the American dream is upward mobility. That is to say the ability to move up the economic ladder. Current studies show such opportunities to be increasingly rare. As stated by one such study “income mobility has fallen across the entire income distribution… ” The blame for this decline is “the more unequal distribution of economic growth…” In other words, rising inequality decreases upward mobility. This is less than surprising when we notice the pay disparity between the average CEO and the average worker. In the 1950s a CEO made about 20 times more income than a typical worker. By May of 2018 that gap increased to 361 times more income.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently highlighted the absurd outcomes that this inequality causes in society. “A system that allows billionaires to exist when there are parts of Alabama where people are still getting ringworm because they don’t have access to public health is wrong.”
“If the only advantage of affluence were the ability to buy yachts, sports cars, and fancy vacations, inequalities of income and wealth would not matter very much. But as money comes to buy more and more — -political influence, good medical care, a home in a safe neighborhood rather than a crime-ridden one, access to elite schools rather than failing ones — the distribution of income and wealth looms larger and larger. Where all good things are bought and sold, having money makes all the difference in the world.” Michael Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy
This staggering inequality and lack of social mobility have had a clear impact on how society views capitalism. In a recent poll, 36% of registered voters think the U.S. should move toward socialism and away from capitalism. This is significant as not so long ago, admitting to be a socialist was enough to leave you ostracized from society.
“Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. … We are born free, and we will stay safe. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country,” (President Donald Trump at the State of the Union 2019)
Bernie Sanders, a self described democratic socialist, responded to the President’s recent remarks: “People are not truly free when they can’t afford health care, prescription drugs, or a place to live. People are not free when they cannot retire with dignity or feed their families.”
A Harvard study comparing five nations demonstrates that common perceptions of social mobility in the U.S. are inaccurate. Many other nations have better social mobility than America. Of the U.S., Great Britain, France, Italy, and Sweden, the U.S. has the worst opportunity for upward social mobility. Perhaps calling it “the American Dream” is a misnomer.
America is experiencing rising inequality, with a corresponding lack of social mobility. Together, these are producing major shifts in public opinion. People are looking for affordable healthcare, market regulation, reasonably priced education and increased earnings. The American dream, if we can still call it that, is increasingly a socialist dream.
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