The idea that anyone can make it in America — The American Dream — is perhaps the most revered ideal associated with the world’s richest nation. And yet, amid the riches and fame is a large underclass, a population of poor Americans whose socio-economic standing challenges the notions of social mobility. As America’s conversation on the gap between rich and poor heats up, NewsOne examines the various ideas that many poor communities believe will close the gap.
While it may be true that a college degree is the best predictor of wealth in America, college as an economic investment and a way out is becoming increasingly overrated. A combination of tuition hikes and cuts to federal grants are making college more expensive and leaving students with few options other than loans to pay for their educations. As a result, Americans owe a record $833 billion in student loan debt, a number that trumps America’s credit card debt ($826 billion). So while large numbers of poor and working class students are receiving their degrees, they’re leaving with a mountain of debt and essentially more poor than when they started college. Not to mention, in these tough economic times, finding a job is a monumental task, especially for many poor and working class students who go through college never being taught the value of building a network. Consequently, a majority of poor and working class students graduate never having forged the relationships that will help them land a job, while their more well-to-do classmates graduate with a Rolodex of wealthy friends, family and colleagues ready to slot them in well paying positions.
Of course some will argue that sports are not a misguided way out, as they provide opportunities for many young, poor, and working class kids to travel, see new things, and in a host of cases even get their college tuition paid for. Still, sports rank among the top misguided ways out because way too many young people, disillusioned by the prospects of making it pro, spend more time perfecting their killer crossover than perfecting the skills they’ll need to land a well paying job. And yet the statistics speak for themselves with less than 1% of high school athletes ever making it into professional sports.
For previous generations joining the military was a good way for young men who for whatever reason did not go to college to start a career. Sold to these mostly poor and working class youth was the chance to travel the world, acquire new skills and eventually get a college education. Fast forward to today, when taking care of our veterans — with high incidents of PTSD and other mental illness— seems like a chore everyone wants to forget. Sadly, we find way too many of our veterans on the streets drug addicted and mentally incapable of holding down a steady job.
In the past, having a lot of children was a logical economic decision in that more kids amounted to more people that could work and contribute to the family’s earnings. Having a lot children was also thought to increase a families chances in the genetics lottery, where a poor family might strike gold if one or more of their children just so happened to luck up on some lucrative talent or by sheer hard work might overcome their poverty to become rich. But according to modern economics the benefits of having a lot of kids seems to have faded away. In a paper titled “An Economic History of Fertility in the U.S.: 1826-1960,” economists Larry Jones and Michele Tertilt illustrate that as the U.S. got richer over time, fertility fell.
The lottery plays heavily on the get rich quick dreams that so many Americans have, especially poor Americans, who, according to a study published in the Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, spend about 9% of all their income on lottery tickets. Despite stats that state lotteries, on average, return just 53 cents for every dollar spent on a ticket, poor Americans, with their dollar and a dream mantra, continue to pour money into them. A Carnegie Mellon study even found that participants made to feel subjectively poor bought nearly twice as many lottery tickets that a comparison group made to feel subjectively more affluent. And yet, the probabilities are so skewed that most will play for their whole lives and never win.
Many have placed their faith in the belief that social welfare programs are a viable means of delivering poor families from poverty. A noble idea of modern liberalism, the belief that a poor family can use government assistance to support itself while working to obtain more stable means has fallen short for many seeking a way out. Way too often we’ve witnessed families use social welfare only to perpetuate poverty over generations. And while certain forms of government assistance have certainly helped to subsidize achievements of certain individuals, for others it has created a culture of dependency and non-employment that has exacerbated conditions of poverty.
Marrying rich is one of the oldest ideas of social mobility with origins that go back to the beginning of civil society when marriage functioned as a way to handle the granting of property rights and the protection of bloodlines. Passed down through generations, it’s an idea many poor people looking for a way out still subscribe to. In its modern form, young women looking for a way out work to court the attention of high paid professional athletes and entertainers, as well as doctors and lawyers. Still, few realize the misguided perception in marrying rich, one being that there are simply not enough rich people to marry, not to mention rich people, like poor people normally congregate among others in their socio-economic group and therefore usually marry rich themselves.
Entertainment, especially music, has been a source of work for generations of poor Americans. In fact, most American music has come from its poorest communities. And as a result, the sing and dance exploits of America’s poorest communities has transformed into a lucrative music economy, which, for some individuals, has amounted to fame and riches. Still, exploitation and a lack of access to distribution channels and venues have kept many artists in the pockets of large corporate conglomerates. Over time, technology has lowered the barriers of entry and placed some of the control back into the hands of artists. At the same time, it has decreased profits and therefore the chances of striking gold with a record deal.
Investing in the drug game as a means of making it out is an idea that is rather pervasive among many poor people. Sadly, the result is one that more often leaves individuals and communities further in poverty. For one, selling drugs ravages a community’s well-being, stripping it of the human capital that it takes for individuals in said community to become financially stout. In addition, serving the drug economy very frequently leads to serving time in prison, which for a poor person, exacerbates his or her own poverty, making it harder to secure employment for being a convicted felon. So rather than lifting an individual out of poverty, working the drug trade more often leads to a person getting stuck in this high-stakes way of life.