Tuesday, March 3, 2009

What do you really have to have to achieve the American Dream?

I asked a couple of college students from different backgrounds what comes to mind first when I say “American Dream.” One said, “white picket fences,” and the other said, “hot apple pie.” Sound familiar? Look familiar?

So I asked another question—is there somewhere you can go to get this American Dream? They both said “school.” What kind? They both said, “College.” Really? When asked what it is that you get at school that gives you the American Dream, one said, “proper credentials,” and the other—“something to show for your hard work, you know, a degree.”

How is it that the land of immigrants, the land of the pioneers, has become the land of the degrees? While I could eloquently describe the virtues associated with holding a college degree and how it is indeed something to aspire to, I will not for the moment. And, I will not write today of all those jobs that pay in excess of $50,000 a year but require something less than a four-year degree—that’s for another day.

I asked these two young college students a more difficult question. Does your belief that a college degree equals a ticket to the American Dream relegate yourcontemporaries and your seniors who lack such ‘proper credentials’ to something less than the Dream? Can they ever achieve it? Ever? Surely that is not the case. This seemed to spur some very deep soul searching belied by their sincere expressions of uncertainty mixed with a little doubt, a little fear and not a few second thoughts.

When asked what the American Dream is, working men and women told a noted pollster it is the ability to earn enough to take care of a family—first and foremost. However, they also believed reaching the American Dream is much harder now than ever before—and may be worse for their children.

Can it be so simple as that? Yes.
Can it be so difficult? Yes.

Even as our nation reels from this seismic economic crisis and our leaders do their best to inject resources, hope and optimism into what is now called our nation’s recovery, we know that millions of Americans were far from reaching the American Dream before the descent into a national economic nightmare.

It is possible that the recovery bill is going to get us moving down the path to a healthier economy. Can we dare to ask that it also put American families back on track to achieve the American Dream? I think we can, we should, and ultimately, we will. If….

If quality jobs are created that pay wages that can support a family—if those wages meet the self-sufficiency standards that have been meticulously created for each county in 35 states and the District of Columbia…or other such measures of income adequacy in the other states.

If those jobs offer the benefits that help families balance life and work.

If those quality jobs are made available to those who have truly been most impacted by the recession—those who were suffering long before.

If those Americans have access to training opportunities in their communities so that they can apply for and get quality jobs in their communities….

If access to training and hiring are open to women and persons of color, especially in occupations where they have traditionally been under-represented.

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