Angelica Gonzales marched through high school in Goth armor — black boots, chains and cargo pants — but undermined her pose of alienation with a place on the honor roll. She nicknamed herself after a metal band and vowed to become the first in her family to earn a college degree.
“I don’t want to work at Walmart” like her mother, she wrote to a school counselor.
Weekends and summers were devoted to a college-readiness program, where her best friends, Melissa O’Neal and Bianca Gonzalez, shared her drive to “get off the island” — escape the prospect of dead-end lives in luckless Galveston. Melissa, an eighth-grade valedictorian, seethed over her mother’s boyfriends and drinking, and Bianca’s bubbly innocence hid the trauma of her father’s death. They stuck together so much that a tutor called them the “triplets.”
Low-income strivers face uphill climbs, especially at Ball High School, where a third of the girls’ class failed to graduate on schedule. But by the time the triplets donned mortarboards in the class of 2008, their story seemed to validate the promise of education as the great equalizer.
Angelica, a daughter of a struggling Mexican immigrant, was headed to Emory University. Bianca enrolled in community college, and Melissa left for Texas State University, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s alma mater.
“It felt like we were taking off, from one life to another,” Melissa said. “It felt like, ‘Here we go!’ ”
Four years later, their story seems less like a tribute to upward mobility than a study of obstacles in an age of soaring economic inequality. Not one of them has a four-year degree. Only one is still studying full time, and two have crushing debts. Angelica, who left Emory owing more than $60,000, is a clerk in a Galveston furniture store.
In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville said that “there is hardly a political question in America which does not sooner or later turn into a judicial one.” That observation seems especially apt as we await oral arguments, scheduled for October 10, in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the most recent affirmative-action challenge to reach the United States Supreme Court.
The policies under review in Fisher are complex, and many commentators have been reluctant to speculate about what the case might mean for affirmative action in general. But whatever happens in this case, we must recognize that controversies about race-conscious admissions have unhelpfully narrowed the debate about equality of educational opportunity and diverted attention from the extraordinary inequalities that continue to exist.
The scope of the judicial question about affirmative action is undeniably narrow. Most Americans who attend college matriculate at institutions that accept a majority of their applicants and then struggle to find resources to provide them with a quality education. Those students often take on sizable debt to attend, and far too many never complete a degree, whether because elementary and secondary schools have left them academically underprepared or because their families have no tradition of higher education or because they cannot balance the demands of school and employment. Moreover, as Michelle Alexander observes in The New Jim Crow, too many minority young men “matriculate” into the prison system, often in states that devote proportionately greater resources to prisons than to higher education.
Those realities suggest that the percentage of minorities at selective institutions has little to do with the educational opportunities available to Americans (minority and nonminority) who struggle to attend underfinanced universities, or who have no hope of attending college at all. Shortly before his death, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. suggested that the second phase of the civil-rights movement ought to be a general campaign against economic inequality. Today, proponents of equality must embrace that suggestion by encouraging institutional change and social innovation that more effectively respond to inequalities in access to postsecondary education.
Inequality is growing in the United States, and social mobility is slowing. A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 62 percent of Americans raised in the top one-fifth of the income scale stay in the top two-fifths; 65 percent born in the bottom fifth stay in the bottom two-fifths.
Education, long praised as the great equalizer, no longer seems to be performing as advertised. A study by Stanford University shows that the gap in standardized-test scores between low-income and high-income students has widened about 40 percent since the 1960s—now double that between black and white students. A study from the University of Michigan found that the disparity in college-completion rates between rich and poor students has grown by about 50 percent since the 1980s.
What role has higher education played in society’s stratification? Are colleges and universities contributing to economic inequality and the decline of social mobility?
The Chronicle asked a group of noted observers and researchers to respond.
Paper or plastic? PC or Mac? Do you want fries with that? American culture is all about making choices. And two scholars report that mulling over our options affects how we think about economic inequality.
“When the concept of choice was highlighted,” they write, “people (taking part in a series of experiments) were less disturbed by statistics demonstrating wealth inequality, less likely to believe that societal factors contribute to the success of the wealthy, less willing to endorse redistributing educational resources more equally between the rich and the poor, and less willing to endorse increased taxes on the rich.”
The growing gap between rich and poor alarms many policymakers; economists from Alan Greenspan to Paul Krugman have called it a long-term threat to U.S. democracy. Yet proposals that could narrow this divide, such as increased spending on public education or higher taxes on the affluent, seldom get much, if any, traction.
It would be easy to attribute this to the disproportionate influence of the wealthy on our political process. But this research suggests the roots of our inaction can be found in the collective psychology of Americans, virtually all of whom are—in the broadest sense of the term—pro-choice.
The perennial conviction that those who work hard and play by the rules will be rewarded with a more comfortable present and a stronger future for their children faces assault from just about every direction. That great enemy of democratic capitalism, economic inequality, is real and growing. The unemployment rate is dispiritingly high. The nation’s long-term fiscal health is at risk, and the American political system, the engine of what Thomas Jefferson called “the world’s best hope,” shows no sign of reaching solutions commensurate with the problems of the day.
It has not always been this way. On Friday, May 1, 1931, James Truslow Adams, a popular historian, was putting the final touches on the preface to his latest book. It was a curious time in the life of the nation. Though the Crash of 1929 had signaled the beginning of the Great Depression that was to endure for years to come, there was also a spirit of progress, of possibility. On the day Adams was finishing his manuscript, President Herbert Hoover pressed a button in Washington to turn on the lights of the newly opened Empire State Building at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue, which, at 1,250 ft., was to be the tallest building in Manhattan until the construction of the World Trade Center four decades later.
(PHOTOS: Behind the Cover: Capturing the American Dream)
High hopes amid hard times: the moment matched Adams’ thesis in his book, The Epic of America, a history of the nation that was to popularize a term not yet in the general vernacular in those last years of the reigns of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover. Adams’ subject, he wrote, was “that American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank which is the greatest contribution we have as yet made to the thought and welfare of the world.” It was not a new thing, this abiding belief that tomorrow would be better than today. “That dream or hope,” Adams wrote, “has been present from the start.”
A Different Kind of Exploitation: A country’s decline begins only when initiative and excellence are no longer valued by society
A country’s decline begins only when initiative and excellence are no longer valued by society. The US middle class is not exploited by the free market but by the rhetoric of redistribution and fairness that has taken hold in America.
In modern American politics, complaints about “economic inequality” have long been a staple of the Democratic Party. During the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt perfected the complaint, purporting to speak for the “little guy.” Barack Obama today champions the “middle class,” ironically undercutting the complaint - apparently, the “little guy” has moved up. But the unquestioned premise endures: out of fairness, economic inequality is a problem government must address. Really?
We inherited a much narrower sense of equality. Indeed, it’s the premise of our founding document. The Declaration of Independence, rejecting the political inequalities of the Old World, proclaims that “all Men are created equal.” But in so writing, Jefferson meant simply that we all have equal rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” plus the right to secure those rights - the right of self-rule - through governments whose just powers are grounded in “the consent of the governed.”
If self-rule is to be enjoyed equally, however, government must be limited. It can pursue neither equality of result nor equality even of opportunity through redistributive schemes - not if people are to be free to pursue happiness as they wish, alone or in association with others. We’re born with equal rights - to pursue happiness, not to happiness. What we do with those rights is up to us. We can be industrious, or not; beneficent, or not - indeed, we may be lucky, or not.
The most striking change in American society in the past generation—roughly since Ronald Reagan was elected President—has been the increase in the inequality of income and wealth. Timothy Noah’s “The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It” (Bloomsbury), a good general guide to the subject, tells us that in 1979 members of the much discussed “one per cent” got nine per cent of all personal income. Now they get a quarter of it. The gains have increased the farther up you go. The top tenth of one per cent get about ten per cent of income, and the top hundredth of one per cent about five per cent. While the Great Recession was felt most severely by those at the bottom, the recovery has hardly benefitted them. In 2010, ninety-three per cent of the year’s gains went to the top one per cent.
Since rich people are poorer in votes than they are in dollars, you’d think that, in an election year, the ninety-nine per cent would look to politics to get back some of what they’ve lost, and that inequality would be a big issue. So far, it hasn’t been. Occupy Wall Street and its companion movements briefly spurred President Obama to become more populist in his rhetoric, but there’s no sign that Occupy is going to turn into the kind of political force that the Tea Party movement has been. There was a period during the Republican primary campaign when Romney rivals like Newt Gingrich tried to take votes from the front-runner by bashing Wall Street and private equity, but that didn’t last long, either. Politics does feel sour and contentious in ways that seem to flow from the country’s economic distress. Yet much of the ambient discontent is directed toward government—the government that kept the recession from turning into a depression. Why isn’t politics about what you’d expect it to be about?
Traditionally, class figured less in politics in America than in most other Western countries, supposedly because the United States, though more economically unequal, and rougher in tone, was more socially equal, more diverse, more democratic, and better at giving ordinary people the opportunity to rise. That’s what Alexis de Tocqueville found in the eighteen-thirties, and the argument has had staying power. It has also been wearing thin. During the five decades from 1930 to 1980, economic inequality decreased significantly, without imperilling ‘American exceptionalism.’ So it’s especially hard to put a good face on the way inequality has soared in the decades since. Even if you think that all a good society requires is—according to the debatable conservative mantra—equal opportunity for every citizen, you ought to be a little shaken right now. Opportunity is increasingly tied to education, and educational performance is tied to income and wealth. When it comes to social mobility between generations, the United States ranks near the bottom of developed nations.
When progressives consider the future, two basic storylines emerge. One can be summed up, roughly, as “Occupy changed everything”: With a new awareness of economic inequality, and a protest movement that managed to get some media attention where others had not, at last some anger has been targeted toward the plutocrats, rather than toward government; a new progressive agenda of redistributive tax policy, public investment rather than budget cutting, financial regulation, and campaign finance reform can finally be built on that anger.
The other story is more narrowly focused on the coming election, and it goes like this: If the economy continues to recover, and the Republicans keep pandering to their base on social issues, President Obama is almost certain to win reelection and Democrats might even retain control of the Senate and gain some ground in the House.
Those two stories aren’t incompatible, exactly. Both could be true, and some have even argued that the Occupy movement helped salvage the Obama presidency, encouraging him to talk more about inequality. But it’s more likely that over the medium term—into 2013 and 2014—“Occupy changed everything” and “America is back” (the emerging Obama campaign theme) represent somewhat different paths for American politics, one of which will take primacy over the other. And increasingly it seems like it will be the latter: If the economic recovery is solid enough for the president to win reelection, it will be an indication that the white-hot fury over economic stress is passing, and political alignments have returned to the trend first set in the 1990s, in which better off suburban swing voters turn to Democrats; young people, unmarried women, and minorities make up an increasing share of the electorate; and the last remnants of the “culture wars” damage the right. In other words, it would be an atmosphere where the political tensions of recent years are finally on the wane.
When politics is not saturated by crisis, the months after a presidential election generally bring a cooler climate to Washington. We’ve been in a hot phase since about late 2005, when anger over the Iraq War peaked, and three massive change elections followed, in 2006, 2008, and 2010. Anger has been the prevailing tone of politics since the recession began, and the failure, before the arrival of the Occupy movement, of the President, Democratic politicians, and most progressive organizations to master the politics of anger has been central to the story of the last few years. But anger is a difficult force to sustain. Whether it’s left-populist anger, right-populist anger, or the anger of bankers whose bonuses are smaller than expected, it burns bright and eventually burns out.
The early second terms of popular presidents are very often cool and productive periods. After Bill Clinton survived an anger wave in his first term, 1997 was a calm year in which legislation such as the State Children’s Health Insurance Program was passed, and it also brought a surprising turn toward greater public trust in government. The same could be said of the two years after Ronald Reagan’s reelection, which included enactment of the Tax Reform Act of 1986. George W. Bush, who gave up on his major second-term initiative, Social Security privatization, within a few months, is the notable exception to this rule.
As spring approaches, Occupy Wall Street protesters who mostly hibernated all winter are beginning to stir with plans for renewed demonstrations six months after the movement was born.
The global protests against corporate excess and economic inequality are generally thought to have begun Sept. 17 when tents sprang up in a small granite plaza in lower Manhattan. The movement has lost steam in recent months, with media attention and donations dropping off as Occupy encampments across the country were dismantled, some by force.
On March 7, the finance accounting group in New York City reported that just about $119,000 remained in Occupy’s bank account - the equivalent of about two weeks’ worth of expenses.
The Occupy movement has influenced the national dialogue about economic equality, with the word “occupy” itself becoming part of the public lexicon. In his third State of the Union address, President Barack Obama issued a populist call for income equality that echoed the movement’s message. But has anything really changed in the past six months?
A big fuss has always been made that Orson Welles was 26 when he co-wrote, directed and starred in “Citizen Kane,” but is it not just as extraordinary that he was 27 when he made “The Magnificent Ambersons”? At first blush, we do not expect someone of that age, and as worldly as Mr. Welles, to eulogize Indianapolis at the turn of the 20th century.
Yet in adapting and directing the second screen version of Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about an aristocratic family whose end is foretold by the invention of the automobile, Mr. Welles revealed himself to be a forerunner of what would later be called a “young fogy.” He narrates the film, which was released by RKO in 1942, so you can hear the lump in his throat as he describes the outdated manners and habits of the Ambersons, the aristocratic family whose mansion envelops their street and whose doings are the talk of the town. David Thomson captured well the irony of Mr. Welles’s narration: “Thus we have the gravest twenty-seven-year-old reading the decline of the Ambersons into the national record.”
“I feel that gluttony must be a good deal less deadly than some of the other sins,” Mr. Welles confessed to Kenneth Tynan in 1967. And there is a joyfully gluttonous quality to the opening montage showing contemporary fashions, such as the transitions from stovepipe hats to derbies and from short overcoats to long ones. “In those days, they had time for everything,” Mr. Welles says. He might have added that “they” also had bank accounts to accommodate every whim. A celebrated scene features family scion George Amberson Minafer (played by Tim Holt, who had been in “Stagecoach,” the film Mr. Welles compulsively studied before making “Citizen Kane”) gobbling up strawberry shortcake and milk. Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) cautions him that he will grow fat, but he does not care a whit. I am reminded of Evelyn Waugh’s assertion that “Brideshead Revisited” (which resembles “Ambersons”) was “infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendors of the recent past” because it was written during World War II.
Movements like Occupy Wall Street tell us to regard the very wealthy with derision, a view at odds with Mr. Welles’s tone. Many would be glad to see the so-called one percent get their “comeuppance,” to borrow the film’s parlance, but that is not how we feel when the Ambersons reach “a state of bustitude” by the film’s end; we are heartsick for them. We also must remember the narrow context in which that word—“comeuppance”—was used in the film: The townspeople wish George to get his reward for being so obnoxious. (One amusing sketch ends with a man chasing after George, yelling, “Turn down your pants, you would-be dude!”) They are much less scornful of the Ambersons en masse, regarding their opulence with benign nosiness. Mr. Tarkington writes that the patriarch, Major Amberson, made his fortune in 1873, “when other people were losing fortunes.” But appeals to economic inequality are unimportant next to the charms of a man like Major Amberson, indelibly played by Richard Bennett. “Dear man, I loved him so,” Mr. Welles said of Mr. Bennett in Peter Bogdanovich’s book “This Is Orson Welles.” “He had the greatest lyric power of any actor I ever saw on the English-speaking stage.”