Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
Americans have always prided themselves on the idea that their nation embodies the dream of rags to riches. Anyone, if they are willing to work, can improve their economic and social position in the US over that enjoyed by their parents. Sadly, that dream is increasingly being seen to be a naive myth, largely due to America's ever-widening class gap.
A number of studies have already found that social mobility in general is declining with the American middle class losing out to the European one. However, Harvard Professor Robert D. Putnam has put a human face upon these dry facts with his newest book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. In it, he has showcased how a widening class gap has made it even harder for those children from lower income households to take advantage of their gifts and how this trend is creating two separate and unequal worlds.
However, Putnam's work should not simply be seen in terms of economic inequality. The true danger, both to individual child and US society in general, is the growing social and cultural divide being forged in the US. The less well off are not simply handicapped by their poverty but also by a society that increasingly is abandoning them.
Evidence for this trend can be found in decaying family support networks, lessened access to extracurricular activities and a society in which families on both sides of this cultural and economic divide may have little or no contact with their peers.
Indeed, Putnam himself confessed that before starting work on the book, he was not aware of just how much more difficult it has become for those of modest means to capture the US dream of the upwardly mobile family.
Without the family and social support networks that wealthier families take for granted, these children find themselves lacking access to the support at home needed to succeed in education. They also often find themselves unable to take advantage of the various extracurricular activities that have become such a vital part of preparing to enter the upper levels of America's educational and economic upper class.
No matter how intelligent or driven, many children find that they quite simply cannot overcome the obstacles that have become embedded into American society.
For Americans, this trend should be deeply worrisome.
Writing off such a huge segment of America's children also means writing off their potential contributions to the country's political, cultural and economic future.
Putnam himself points to studies that demonstrate how regions with better social mobility benefit both economically and socially from their good fortune. At a time when much of the world is focusing on reducing these social divides, the growing social mobility gap represents a serious national crisis.
Politically, an increasingly disenfranchised lower class that is both uninformed and cynical about the political system is a natural incubator for extremist viewpoints. For their part, the upper class will come to see less fortunate Americans as an alien and inferior group rather than fellow citizens. Both trends could lead to a future where America faces growing social and political tensions in all segments of the population.
Economically, this gap could drastically harm US ability to innovate in the future.
After all, some of the world's greatest innovators came from poverty-stricken origins. Should the trends Putnam warns us about continue, how many potential entrepreneurs will find their ambitions thwarted by class-based divides in education and economic opportunity? Can innovation survive in an environment where a growing number of children will never be allowed to even attempt to innovate?
Accepting this growing divide is to accept that US society, government and economy will be increasingly built upon a foundation of sand. Americans should not be angry that the children of the well off enjoy abundant opportunities. Rather, Americans must demand that both society and government work to ensure that the children of the less well off have opportunities to rise. To ensure that they, like many Americans did in the past, can make a life equal or better than the one their parents enjoyed.
To do otherwise is to accept that the American dream has become nothing less than a cynical myth for many. More damningly, to do otherwise will help to bring about a future where the US will be plagued by growing social and economic instability as a result of the unwise choices made by the people and government.
The author is a freelance writer based in Corona, California. email@example.com