Note: The following essay was written by Gary Bakst, my husband. Thank you, Gary, for you thoughtful, insightful piece.
The American dream is you work hard, and you get ahead. Your children should have a better life than you have. Their children should have a better life than theirs. And, to be fair, this country has lifted millions of people into the middle class over the years, especially during the post-World War II years. While there are all kinds of questions about how you measure this, the middle class is mostly estimated to comprise over 50% of our total population and has been over 60% at times.
That is the dream. Then there is reality. Many people are struggling to achieve that goal. Many others are struggling to hold on to that achievement. The share of Americans in the middle class has gradually diminished over the last 5 decades according to most estimates and the percentage living in poverty has gone up. People have fallen out of the middle class showing us that mobility can go down as well as up. Income inequality has risen. The wealthiest Americans have seen their share of wealth grow ever larger while most people struggle to meet their expenses for food, fuel, heat, medicine.
The myth of upward mobility is the real world for so many people. Not that nobody is able to achieve a better life, a more comfortable financial situation. Some do. But, I am writing this because I am thinking about the people I see every day. I see patients and I see staff working in our office. So many make decisions about their care that would be different but for the cost of their medications.
So many patients tell me about their children. Some are doing amazing things and it is so nice to hear those stories. I think about the kids who are accomplished professionals, or well on the way to becoming that. Children who have their own lives, homes, families and are such sources of joy and pride to their parents.
But it feels like many more of my patients describe children who live in a different reality. They are dealing with unstable job situations, unstable relationships. Some deal with addictions, depression. Some have children but need help taking care of those children. Many are adults living in their parents’ homes.
As I have thought about these people, I have tried to make associations. What is the common denominator that explains who has done well? Of course, there is no perfect predictor, but I do think that stability in the parents sure does help the children. I think of some of the married couples I take care of who are just such fine people. Maybe they are not particularly wealthy, but they are terrific role models. It seems to me that this, along with the expectation that their children will get a college education, goes a long way.
But some other people are also fine people, hardworking and with wonderful values. But life perhaps has just not gone the same way for them. Perhaps they have had children but a relationship that did not last. Perhaps they have had career setbacks. It seems to me that it is so hard to recover from those setbacks in this country. I know these people hold their children just as close to their hearts as others do. But I wonder if their expectations for them are different.
I remember when I graduated from high school, there was a mother who was crying with joy saying she never imagined she would have a child who would graduate from high school. I recall thinking how different that was from my parents’ expectations and from my own. Perhaps the child internalizes those expectations, and their goals and decisions are likewise impacted. My parents had little education, but they sure did believe in its power and were determined that their children would go to college.
It seems to me that community has an awful lot to do with these expectations. I see people who live in small towns and may not have the same opportunities that others do. There may not be a tradition of people going on to higher education there. That same issue can often be true in urban areas. While we are nearly all connected virtually, we still live in a concrete world that we see, walk on and experience. It is a powerful message about what is possible.
I did not intend this essay as a dissection of American public policy, but I do think that we need policies that encourage that upward mobility and the factors that promote it. I think we should look at what personal characteristics and family dynamics are most helpful and do more to encourage them. And I believe we need to break down barriers that prevent people in specific localities from reaching their dreams.
I am not suggesting that money is everything. There is so much more. We should not equate money and success, money, and happiness. And there are surely lots of paths to a happy and fulfilled life. It does not have to be, it really cannot be, the same path for everyone.
But it is hard to imagine that having the means to live a healthy and comfortable life is not better than not having those means. Money for many of my patients is a direct barrier to health. It seems like that ought to matter to somebody.
It is also worth pointing out that I am not suggesting upward mobility means everyone should be richer than their parents. For one thing, some parents are already doing quite well and there may not be that much room to go up. How rich would a child of Bill Gates need to be if we used that definition? For another thing, the goal is surely not endless wealth. That seems like a bizarre set of values. We are hoping for people to be secure and happy; healthy and safe. Money is part of that but is not an end in itself.
I wonder if anyone else out there has thought about this issue. What factors do you see as positively or negatively affecting these outcomes, be it at the family, neighborhood or even at the public policy levels? How do we make the dream attainable for more Americans?