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Ground Zero in the Land of Opportunity

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Posted on Dec 12, 2012
Flickr/Earlham College

By Mike Rose

Opportunity is a key word in the American story, one that is embedded in the political speech of the right and left alike. And central to the story, a major subplot, is that we are the land of opportunity not only for those fresh out of the gate—young people, first-time job seekers, those poised to climb another rung on the mobility ladder—but also for people who have not done so well educationally or economically the initial time around. We are a country of second chances. We believe deeply that with hard work we can triumph over adversity. Popular culture is rich with tales of the underdog, the come-from-behind winner—accounts of personal redemption, rags-to-riches stories. In “Ragged Dick,” Horatio Alger’s novel about an enterprising bootblack, one of the author’s fictitious benefactors offers the following rosy observation about upward mobility in the United States: “In this free country poverty is no bar to a man’s advancement.” The belief that individual effort can override social circumstances runs deep in the national psyche. It’s in Ben Franklin, in Alger’s immensely popular 19th-century novels, and it is a central tenet in conservative social policy today.

I have been spending the last several years at ground zero for the second chance, an urban community college serving the poorest population in a city with many concentrations of poverty. About 60 percent of the students are on financial aid. Because of a subpar education or schooling cut short, 90 percent need to take one or more remedial courses in English, reading or mathematics. A fair number have been through the criminal justice system.

As I have gotten to know these students, the numbers come alive. Many had chaotic childhoods, went to underperforming schools and never finished high school. With low-level skills, they have had an awful time in the labor market: short-term jobs, long stretches of unemployment, no health care. Many, the young ones included, have health problems that are inadequately treated if treated at all. I remember during my first few days on the campus noticing the number of people who walked with a limp or an irregular gait.

For much of my professional life, I have worked with such students, and I was brought to this campus as part of a research team charged with exploring the barriers to their success. My time here has allowed me to see directly the power of a second chance, but also has laid bare the mythology around it, the complex nature of opportunity in the United States when you’re already behind the educational and economic eight ball. To make matters worse, the community college I’m visiting has been hit with budget cuts and has had to limit course offerings and services and turn some new students away.

It’s telling, I think, that an issue last year of the influential conservative magazine National Review posed this question in bold print on its cover: “What’s Wrong With Horatio Alger?” Above the question the young Alger protagonist sits forlorn on a park bench, his shoeshine kit unused, an untied bundle of newspapers next to him, unsold. The standard political discourse from the right contains no such question about mobility. The party line is that the market if left alone will produce the opportunity for people to advance, that the current sour economy—though worrisome and painful—will correct itself if commerce and innovation are allowed to thrive, and that the gap between rich and poor is, in itself, not a sign of any basic malfunction or injustice, for there are always income disparities in capitalism. For government to draw on the money some people have earned to assist those who are less fortunate is to interfere with market principles, dampen the raw energy of capitalism and foster dependency. The opportunity to advance is always there for those who work hard. This is a seamless story, made plausible by our deep belief in upward mobility.


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But the author of the lead article in National Review cites statistics that pretty much all economists across the ideological spectrum confirm: Upward mobility for people at the bottom rungs of the income ladder, limited during the best of times, is significantly diminished. Breaking the numbers out by race, the author writes of “a national tragedy,” that “black and white children grow up in entirely different economic worlds.”

The writer goes on to say that “living up to our values requires policymakers … to focus on increasing upward relative mobility from the bottom.”

The Economist, not as fiscally conservative as National Review but in the same free-market ballpark, put it even more strongly in an April 2011 cover story, “What’s wrong with America’s economy?” The writers say that the real danger to the American economy is chronic, ingrained joblessness that is related to our social and economic structure: tens of millions of young, marginally educated people who drift in and out of low-paid, dead-end jobs and older low-skilled displaced workers, unable to find employment as industries transform and jobs disappear. This situation places a huge and—if left alone—intractable drag on the economy. Therefore, the writers recommend comprehensive occupational, educational and social services, for America spends “much less as a share of GDP than almost any other rich country” on policies to get the hard-to-employ into the labor market.

Many of the people I meet at the college face hardships beyond what education alone can remedy—housing, health care, child care and, bottom line, basic employment. But improving English or math, or gaining a GED certificate, or an occupational skill or a postsecondary degree would contribute to their economic stability and have personal benefits as well. There are a few people who seem to be marking time, but most listen intently as an instructor explains the air-supply system in a diesel engine, or the way to sew supports into an evening dress or how to solve a quadratic equation. And they do and redo an assignment until they get it right. Hope and desire are brimming. Many of the students say this is the first time school has meant anything to them. More than a few talk about turning their lives around. It doesn’t take long to imagine the kind of society we would have if more people had this opportunity.

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