Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Passing Down the Dream

I’ve always been fascinated with the concept of ‘the American Dream.’ Not unique to America, it’s the universal idea that anyone can pull themselves up from their proverbial bootstraps and earn success and happiness if they just work hard enough at it. In the past, I’ve written several blogs about the gradual demise of this ideology as a part of the American lexicon. Nowadays, it seems to harken back to a time and period lost in the history of our country.

Two books, in particular, have done a pretty detailed analysis of the gradual shifts in the business, political and social climates of the Seventies that led to this major change in American society. Neither book offers up easy answers to our current challenge of growing a stronger middle class and lifting up others along the way.

Recently, I’ve come across two more books that tie nicely into this question of advancement for the masses in the twenty-first century. Not surprisingly, there’s a curious correlation between education, neighborhoods and housing in addressing the causes of this problem.

‘Our Kids’ (The American Dream in Crisis) and ‘Golden Gates’ (The Housing Crisis and a Reckoning for the American Dream) both address this continuing crisis within American society.

It took a while for me to truly grasp the cusp of the problem. What I experienced growing up back in the fifties and sixties wasn’t the same as it is for younger folks today. Growing up, I, along with a lot of my friends, were neither wealthy nor middle class. But that didn’t stop us from moving up in society. We got an education, found jobs and advanced in our careers. On one level, it seemed as simple as that.

A friend was talking recently about being raised poor and not knowing it. His father, along with his uncles, all worked at the Firestone Tire factory in Akron, Ohio. It was a hard, honorable job but one that didn’t pay a lot, especially for a household of many children and a mother who didn’t work outside of the home. My friend’s situation was no different than the Irish, Polish, Black and Eastern Europe neighbors in his community.

Photo by Jerry Hoffman

My own story of growing up poor has been chronicled in many blogs over the years. Again, it wasn’t something my friends and I were acutely aware of aside from the lack of a family car, no summer vacations or very few material things around the house. Most of us started working at an early age and accepted that as ‘par for the course.’

Starting at age six, Sharon grew up doing chores around the farm. If the bulk tank wasn’t cleaned twice a day, her dad couldn’t sell his milk as grade A and there wouldn’t be a milk check at the end of the month. She remembers growing up with no sink in the kitchen of their old farmhouse but a shiny new bulk tank instead in the barn.

One of the key differences for my friends and I verse our parents was education. My Mother had a 6th grade education. My father’s educational level is unknown. Sharon’s mother had two years of high school. Her father just went to the eighth grade. Not unusual for that generation.

Yet because of our own opportunities at education, our kids, Brian and Melanie, have between them a law degree and a masters in entrepreneurship. Our grandchildren have a legacy in education that will demand, even now, that they will probably have advanced degrees beyond just college.

As mentioned in ‘Golden Gates’: “It was hard to see it back then, but America was in the middle of a vast realignment that was fundamentally altering where we live, how we work, and the structure of our families. Ultimately, growing class segregation across neighborhoods and schools means that rich Americans and poor Americans are living, learning, and raising children in increasingly separate and unequal worlds, removing the stepping-stones to upward mobility.”

It wasn’t always so cloudy in this country in terms of potential financial advancements for the average person. After World War Two, there was unprecedented growth with the GDP. That growth in the middle class slowed and gradually lost its luster beginning in the late 60s and early 70s.

The 1970s were also notable for another reason. It harkened in the beginning of a new financial equation. It was the beginning of a new mindset about real estate, when property in every shape, location, and purpose became a good financial investment.

The intertwinement and entanglements of business and political interests has been going on for a long time now. It’s no secret that lobbyists weld an enormous power in Washington for the vested good of special interests and the moneyed elite. Generally speaking, it’s the middle class who gets the short end of the dollar stick in most of these transactions, arrangements and agreements made into law.

A Harvard professor has been quoted as saying: “There will be a time very shortly when young people-very young people- will be looking into computer screens. They will be looking directly into screens, not to the side, so there will be no peripheral vision; they won’t be looking over the top, so they won’t see what’s ahead; they’ll be staring straight ahead into those screens, blind to everything ahead and around them.”

Money managers and financial product traders will be selling, buying, and swapping financial products around the world. With that narrow focus, like a horse with blinders, they will have more control and hold more power in those split seconds than we can today imagine. And all of it entirely focused on short-term gains.”

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 revealed the fallacy of this short-term thinking. We used to have an economy that manufactured stuff, now it manufactures debt. This concept of ‘wealth supremacy’ suggests that the core aim of our economy should be delivering ever-increasing gains to investment portfolios instead of a wider distribution of wealth to the masses. While there is no easy answer, education, once again, comes into play here.

Financial literacy is a topic of interest that every American should acquaint themselves with. Essentially, it is the ability to use one’s knowledge and skills to effectively manage financial resources, ideally for a lifetime of financial well-being. Indeed, financial literacy is something we all have to work on each day—it’s part of our ongoing education.

Despite being a relatively new field of study, financial literacy has become increasingly important for governments and citizens – without it there can be broad implications for the economic health and stability of countries.

While we can’t, as individuals, control the stock market, affect financial futures or the political games being played in Washington, we can steel ourselves against the mis-information and financial pitfalls all around us. It is up to each one of us to watch our pocketbooks and nest egg for the future. No one else will do it for us.

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