Illusions of Opportunity: The American Dream in Question

Illusions of Opportunity: The American Dream in Question

by John E. Schwarz
How America ended up with a deficit of sixteen million adequate jobs, hurting nearly a quarter of American families. The "American dream" and the immigrant's vision of America as "the land of opportunity" both depend on the idea that everyone in this country who works hard can support a family and get ahead. Yet, as John Schwarz makes clear, even thirty years ago


How America ended up with a deficit of sixteen million adequate jobs, hurting nearly a quarter of American families. The "American dream" and the immigrant's vision of America as "the land of opportunity" both depend on the idea that everyone in this country who works hard can support a family and get ahead. Yet, as John Schwarz makes clear, even thirty years ago opportunity in America was drying up--to the point that, today, nearly a quarter of American families that depend on employment to sustain themselves can't find adequate work, despite tremendous economic growth. Illusions of Opportunity reveals how this happened--and how the signs have been consistently misread, manipulated, or ignored by leaders across the political spectrum. Schwarz's provocative and original new research demonstrates that, rather than global competition or suffocating governmental interference, the real culprits are too many people competing for too few good jobs, high productivity outpacing low wage increases, and pay raises disproportionately benefiting the highest earners. The belief that all citizens should be able to sustain themselves and their families and communities decently is one that Americans regardless of political affiliation still share. Schwarz shows how the loss of opportunity has led to social decay, and how--with a better understanding of the problems we face--we might make the American dream a reality again.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Arguing that economic indicators like the unemployment rate fail to measure actual opportunities available to the American worker, Schwarz, who teaches political science at the University of Arizona, makes a strong case that the principle of "economic independence," central to the thinking of the Constitution's framers, has been cynically abandoned by our leaders. He is passionateand convincingabout his claim, documented with hundreds of statistics, that a quarter of U.S. households depend on work that does not provide them with even a baseline standard of decent living. His prose often reads like a political speech, but his logic never departs from his statistics, and the idea that economic opportunity has dried up as the wage discrepancy between the highest- and lowest-paid workers grows is not hard to accept. Schwarz's admonition that we "direct our sights to a fresh model... where the opportunity to work exists for all,... where all who do work receive an adequate return" seems as inspired as the Bill of Rights, though his proposed enactment of a package of tax breaks, incentives and job creation would, he notes, cost taxpayers an estimated $180 billion. Yet, as he points out, "Personal responsibility without opportunity is a contradiction in terms." (Sept.)
Library Journal
Schwarz (political science, Univ. of Arizona, Tucson) presents a lucid and engaging argument that the current "healthy" economy falls seriously short in providing opportunity for all citizens to achieve a decent lifethe author's "moral bottom line." The book extends his previous analysis of working poverty with Thomas J. Volgy in The Forgotten Americans (LJ 9/15/92) and draws on the historic benefits of government spending he demonstrated in America's Hidden Success (Norton, 1988. rev. ed.). A significant contribution is the historical background that puts government economic involvement into the context of the political philosophy of the nation's founders. The author notes that the traditional American ethic of hard work, honesty, and persistence is sustainable only in the presence of opportunity that allows the virtuous to attain a rising, if modest, standard of living. He also persuasively criticizes current government calculations of unemployment and poverty. Highly recommended for all libraries.Paula Dempsey, Loyola Univ., Chicago
Kirkus Reviews
An academic's arresting appraisal of what he deems a serious lack of employment opportunity in a booming domestic economy.

Drawing mainly on statistical data, Schwarz (coauthor of The Forgotten Americans, 1992, etc.) makes a persuasive case for the proposition that there's a serious shortage in the US of adequate jobs—defined as full-time, year-round positions that provide base- line compensation or better (at least per hour in 1994 dollars). All told, he concludes, the gross deficit of jobs that pay an adequate (i.e., living) wage aggregates 15.7 million. In the author's book, this shortfall puts paid to any comforting notion that America is a land of opportunity in which the industrious can get ahead and provide their families with basic necessities (which include medical care and recreation). He goes on to note that breadwinners who can't make ends meet are neither unskilled nor uneducated; indeed, two-thirds are high-school graduates and one- third have at least some college. Arguing that an affluent society owes its working poor a helping hand, Schwarz (Political Science/Univ. of Arizona) proposes a series of government actions to offset the economy's persistent inability to generate enough good jobs and make the needy employed minimally self-sufficient. Among other initiatives, he recommends: indexing the minimum wage so it could not fall below 47 percent of the average pay of nonsupervisory personnel; expanding earned-income tax credits on a sliding scale; subsidizing private enterprises that allocate profits to creating new jobs at above-average rates; enhancing employment opportunity in the public sector; providing health-care coverage to the working poor; and establishing apprenticeship programs. The author also offers suggestions as to how these efforts might be underwritten.

A timely reminder that the blessings of America's good times remain unequally distributed.

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Problem

Disquieting doubts have crept into America's consciousness over the past thirty years. Mounting social pathologies, troubling economic uncertainties, and rising political disillusion have left many feeling that something is wrong, that the nation's bright lustre has become tarnished, that the nation has somehow lost its way. To ascertain the root of our fears, recover our moral bearings, and renew the nation's sense of purpose, we must begin at the beginning: with our fundamental principles, with our basic creed. In Abraham Lincoln's words, America is dedicated to a proposition.

The nation's creed asserts the moral equality of all. Belief in it connects each of us to the whole and thus to one another. It gives us a sense of shared fate, despite the centrifugal forces of our many ethnic, racial, and religious differences, and the great importance we attach to individuality. The glue that binds an immensely diverse people cannot be a common blood or unifying religion, but must instead be a shared idea, a secular religion (from the Latin for "tying together") that supplies us with a common sense of our responsibilities to one another. George Will thus rightly describes us as a creedal, not a tribal, nation. And as Francis Fukuyama points out in The End of History and the Last Man, communities that share a language or creed based on good and evil will be far more enduring than those based simply on self-interest. In effect, the message of our creed, what it requires of us, and the place it holds in our tradition are tantamount to describing the genetic and familial ties that the English have with one another, or the French, or the Germans. Out of our enormous array of differences, it is what makes us one people.

A central component of this creed is called the American Ethos, or the American Dream. Every American today instinctively knows the ethos: that every individual should be able to get ahead and gain some measure of success through actions and means that are under his or her own control. Roger Angell describes it as the faith that we all belong somewhere within a rational and forgiving system that in the end rewards hard work, intelligence, and sacrifice. The ethos is that everyone who steadfastly practices certain practical virtues will find a place at the table. No one need be left out, unless he or she voluntarily chooses to be. These virtues--self-control, discipline, effort, perseverance, and responsibility--stand at the core of our sense of morality and our idea of good character, and are essential to the success and safety of a good society. To fail to reward them would be to diminish and devalue them as virtues. No value survives forever on incantations alone.

That America should be a land of opportunity where every hardworking person who perseveres can find a respected place is an idea whose roots run so deep in American history that it dates back to the Declaration of Independence and the very founding of the Republic. So universally is it accepted among Americans as a moral foundation that it transcends politics and political party identification--Democrat, Republican, libertarian, religious right, Perotista, independent--of voters and nonvoters alike, no matter their age, gender, race, or ethnic background. It is what unites us in the present and, in turn, unites the present with the past.

The ethos also sets forth a standard of justice that holds each individual accountable, for it assumes that one's fate is in large measure under one's own control. With this belief in mind, Congress named its landmark welfare reform bill of 1996 "the Personal Responsibility Act." Yet as James Madison pointed out in the Federalist No. 63, "Responsibility, in order to be reasonable, must be limited to objects within the power of the responsible party." A community in which individuals lack control over their own fate loses the moral right to apply an authentic notion of personal accountability.

To many Americans, the very idea of being wholly human dissolves if we have little or no control over our own fate. If it is true that absolute power corrupts, so can absolute powerlessness. The ability to exercise a reasonable level of control over one's own future is essential, in the American way of thinking, not simply due to the virtues it will affirm or the sense of justice it permits but because it defines our idea of fully realized humanity itself.

As a result, the notion that people do have a capacity to control their own destinies is an enormously strong, almost insistent feature of our American culture. The stories of penniless immigrants who came to these shores and became successful are as legion as they are inspiring, fostering a belief that anyone can start anew in this country and succeed. Principal Joe Clark tells his students at Eastside High School in Patterson, New Jersey: "Don't you know, no one can hold you down unless you consent to it." Madeline Cartwright, principal of James G. Blaine Public School in North Philadelphia, challenges her students: "I'm telling you, there's things you can do." America is a land, in the fashion of Horatio Alger, Jr., where "God helps those who help themselves."

Nonetheless, many people believe that over the past three decades a dangerous anti-ethos has arisen: the idea that the individual American is not responsible for his or her own fate. From the point of view of these observers, too many individuals have come to see themselves as victims rather than as agents, to feel sorry for themselves instead of working to pick themselves up--a mentality that government assistance programs helped to spawn and now continue to reinforce. With the expansion of government has come a feeling of entitlement and an emphasis on rights over responsibilities. The creed of personal accountability so important to the American ethos has withered, and with that has come a rise in welfare, illegitimacy, crime, and other social pathologies--the price the society has paid for the abandonment of character. In the end, William Bennett reminds us, "the state of the union depends on the character of its citizens."

Or has something gone wrong with the ethos itself? The premise that individuals can control and so be personally responsible for their own lives presumes that the opportunity to do so exists. Generations of Americans have called this "the land of opportunity." But is it, still? Does opportunity remain available and adequate to the needs of the American people, sufficient to enable them to take control of their own lives? Does this ethos, which is expected to connect us and provide the moral underpinnings of a just and healthy society, reflect the reality that American families actually experience in their everyday lives? Are the problems troubling society today due to the disintegration of values and character, or to a genuine lack of opportunity that prevents individuals and families from being able to determine their own futures?

The answers we are offered rely on little more than intuitive sense and anecdotal information. Some say good jobs are there for the asking, all a worker needs to do is to look in the daily newspapers; others tell of employers who have so many applications on file for jobs that they can easily keep wages low and, if necessary, rid themselves of workers. One scholar says that the very brief time individuals stay unemployed before finding a new job stands as compelling testimony to the availability of opportunity; yet a news story reports that 1,000 people lined up and waited for hours to apply for a handful of temporary jobs with no benefits at a General Motors plant. The chairman of Pacific Telesis informs us that over half of the 6,400 workers applying for 700 operator jobs at $7 per hour with his company were not qualified and could not read at the seventh-grade level. But 2,700 applicants were qualified for the 700 jobs. One person points to the welfare queen who cheats the taxpayer, and a series of private-sector programs that have gotten good jobs for welfare recipients who are willing to work. Another tells the story of a welfare recipient who tries and perseveres but has gotten nowhere.

These contradictory narratives, each resulting from a cobbling together of bits and pieces of evidence, have become central to our politics. Each side routinely exploits its narrative for political gain. The debate doesn't move us forward, however. Instead, it polarizes and ultimately shackles us.

The struggle between left and right infusing our politics, played out particularly in our social and economic policies, isn't mainly a battle between different world views of morality or the good society. It is, in part, of course. Looking beneath the surface, however, it is even more a conflict about the degree to which a society that every side perceives as essentially good--a society that provides enough opportunity for all--actually exists. Each side of the political debate fundamentally agrees that the deserving should be helped, and that those who try and cannot help themselves are the deserving. The American ethos is common currency; in the end, all sides concur that there are certain entitlements, and that foremost among them is the right to opportunity.

What, then, does economic opportunity mean according to the lights of American thinking? To what extent does opportunity commensurate with American standards exist in the nation, both now and in the recent past? What implications do the answers to these questions have for an understanding of the troubles presently facing the nation? What do the answers teach us about our policies now--and what they must become in the future--with respect to job creation, welfare, child support, health care measures, minimum wage laws, education, job training, and labor organization, among others? What are the implications in terms of the role government should play in the economy, and in terms of what it means to say that the economy is a success or a failure? Do today's measures of the economy accurately inform us or fundamentally mislead us? If there isn't enough opportunity, why not? What lessons are there for nations around the world that are looking to the American example?

This book is about the answers to these and other related questions--answers that will likely surprise both the right and the left.

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