Is the American Dream Just a Dream?

College Graduation

“You’ll git the education I didn’t git, so you can have a better life than I’ve had.” This was my father’s mantra. He quit school in fifth grade, and he began working in a coal mine when he was only fifteen. He was functionally illiterate, and my mother read every important document to him in the privacy of their bedroom. He went to such great lengths to hide his illiteracy that even his five children didn’t know for years that he couldn’t read.

My father sometimes said that he got his education in the School of Hard Knocks, and because of that, he passionately wanted his children to get an education, though he had no idea how to make it happen. My sister and I were the first of his parents’ 52 grandchildren to graduate from college.

Though our parents were the driving force behind our desire for an education, our parents didn’t do it alone. Both my sister and I each had one teacher who believed in us and who helped us navigate the college application process. We had neighbors who drove us to and from college because our parents didn’t have a car. We each had mentors in college who encouraged us and pointed us in the right direction when it was time to apply for jobs.

Teachers do not typically post their diplomas in their classrooms, but I’ve often thought that if I did, I’d have to encircle it with photographs of all the people who, by virtue of the support they provided me, own a little piece of it. It truly did take a village to raise the child I was out of poverty.

My story is not a unique one in the world of the 1970s. But it is one that is becoming more rare in our country. In their book Whither Opportunity? authors Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane tell us that prior to 1970, only 10% of young adults had less education than their parents. In a single decade, that gap grew to 20%, and the last three decades have been the first in our nation’s history where the trend has changed in such a direction.

While that increase may not sound significant, when poverty is factored in, we should all hear alarm bells. The number of children raised in affluent families who earned a college degree in the 1990s was 21% higher than it was in the 1970s, but for the same time period, the number of children raised in poor families to earn a college degree was only 4% higher than in the 1970s. But what is most shocking is that, according to a report presented at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s annual conference in October, rich high school dropouts do about as well in the job market as poor college graduates.

Our nation has been talking about the achievement gap since I first began teaching in 1978, almost always framing it in terms of race, and yet we have seen the gap widen. And while it is about race, it’s more about the combination of multiple factors—the more factors, the greater the odds of failure. An article in the New York Times on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty made clear that we have made little progress in the greatest pockets of poverty in our country:

Of the 353 most persistently poor counties in the United States — defined by Washington as having had a poverty rate above 20 percent in each of the past three decades — 85 percent are rural. They are clustered in distinct regions: Indian reservations in the West; Hispanic communities in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas; a band across the Deep South and along the Mississippi Delta with a majority black population; and Appalachia, largely white, which has supplied some of America’s iconic imagery of rural poverty…

Eliza Jane Dillard, a former West Virginia Teacher of the Year, noted in a government report the effects of poverty on the children of Appalachia:

They aren’t getting a fair and equal chance. And not only are the minority children being overlooked, but the poor whites are also. . . .They’re not encouraged to go to college. They’re made to feel as if they can’t do anything but maybe cook and wash out or clean hotels, or maybe sweep.

Where white children are poor, children of color are even poorer. I don’t believe it’s coincidence that poor children began lagging behind their parents during the era of Reaganomics. And I also don’t think it’s coincidence that the political climate of the past three decades—under both Republican and Democratic administrations—has led to fewer opportunities for children of poverty to be lifted up by a society that cares about them.

Dad left no doubt in my mind that college was the key to success. He died in 1999, but I wonder sometimes if his children had been born even one decade later, whether he would have been able to assure us that if we did the hard work of getting an education, we would have opportunities in this country that no other country in the world offers.

In his poem “Harlem,” Langston Hughes asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?” None of the possibilities are appealing:  Does it “dry up like a raisin in the sun?…fester like a sore?…stink like rotten meat?…Or does it explode?

It takes a village. It takes a society. And we ignore the children of the poor at our own peril. What will we do to ensure that our children have more opportunities for an education, for a good job, for a sound future? What do we do to ensure that their dreams aren’t deferred?

A dream deferred is no good to anyone. What will we do to ensure that all our children, and especially our poor children, can believe in the American Dream?

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