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The American dream faces a rocky future as poverty and education disparity spreads

By Neeraj Salhotra     11/29/11 6:00pm

I am an ardent supporter of President Barack Obama and have often used this space to praise him and his policies. Yet I cannot be a blind supporter; when they err, it is our responsibility to criticize those we admire. As such, today I write to express my fundamental disagreement with the president.

Last week, Obama gave a Thanksgiving address in which he said, "I know that for many of you, this Thanksgiving is more difficult than most. No matter how tough things are right now, we still give thanks for that most American of blessings, the chance to determine our own destiny." Obama was right to note that for many Americans things are tough — more than 103 million are in or near poverty — yet the president was wrong to suggest that everyone still has "the chance to determine [his/her] own destiny." I fundamentally believe that this uniquely American Dream may not be dead but is on life support, as many Americans are unable to determine their lot in life.

The opportunity to determine one's own destiny is premised on the notion that by working hard and playing by the rules one can achieve a middle-class life. This was certainly the reality 40 or 50 years ago; in fact, many of our parents are living testaments to that American Dream. Today, that dream is becoming just that — a dream. For millions of Americans their destiny is determined not by their diligence, dedication or desire, but rather by whether or not they win the genetic lottery.



This inequity and achievement gap begins when children are three or four years old, as low-income families are unable to afford high-quality Pre-K. This gap only widens as children enter elementary school since, as compared to wealthy neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods have less funding for schools and hence, lower-performing schools. This gap is only further accentuated in the summer, for low-income families cannot afford intellectually-stimulating summer activities. As such, each summer low-income students lose up to half a grade level in reading. Once students reach high school the socioeconomic achievement gap has grown so wide that it is double that of the racial achievement gap. Due to this disparity, low-income students are six times more likely to drop out of high school than high-income students.

In the past, the antidote to poverty was a college education, yet because of these structural factors, many low-income students do not even graduate from high school. What's more, even if they do complete high school, the cost of college is often prohibitively expensive. In fact, in 1976, Pell Grants covered over 60 percent of college tuition; today they only cover 30 percent of tuition. Low-income students are, therefore, less able to afford college, less likely to attend college and less likely to achieve upward mobility.

The inability to determine one's destiny is not restricted to education; rather, it is a systemic problem that afflicts various policy areas. For example, as Brookings Institution Fellow Scott Winship found: "Two-thirds of African-American children experience a level of neighborhood poverty growing up that just 6 percent of white children will ever see." Living in such adverse conditions has adverse effects on educational performance and upward mobility. Additionally, as Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, recently noted: "It's well known that communities of color and low -income communities bear the disproportionate share of the deaths and illnesses associated with pollution from coal-fired power plants." More than just neighborhood poverty and environmental effects, more than 1.85 million low-income Americans declare bankruptcy each year due to rising health-care costs.

Finally, to compound all the aforementioned problems, during the past 40 years, wages have been stagnant. If costs and wages had been rising at the same amount, then many of these woes would not exist. However, since 1970, real average hourly wages have declined by 1 percent. That is, without factoring in the rising health care and tuition costs, average Americans earn less today than they did in 1970.

The achievement gap, the disproportionate environmental effects, the oppressive health-care costs and stagnant wages have rendered many Americans powerless to determine their own destiny. This is not just my opinion; this is the opinion of those who have spent years researching this. As Boston Federal Reserve economist Katharine Bradbury recently found:,"Overall, the evidence indicates that over the 1969-to-2006 time span, family income mobility across the distribution decreased, families' later-year incomes increasingly depended on their starting place and the distribution of families' lifetime incomes became less equal." Simply put, social mobility is vanishing and with it, people's ability to determine their own destiny.

Therefore, it appears President Obama's statement, "We still give thanks for that most American of blessings, the chance to determine our own destiny," rings hollow. While for some Americans this is a reality, for many Americans this is simply a tantalizing dream. Therefore, we must all work to ensure that the American Dream, which is currently on life-support, does not die. We must all work to ensure that every American has an equal opportunity at success. We must all work to ensure that no American child's destiny is determined by whether they win or lose the genetic lottery.

Neeraj Salhotra is a Sid Richardson College junior.



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