Wealth gap (copy)

The American dream, James Truslow Adams wrote in 1931, is "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” And yet here was the Sept. 26 headline: “Income inequality hits highest level in more than 50 years.” How did we fall so far short of the national dream?

A recent Census Bureau report shows that the income divide here is well above that of any European democracy, and is the highest ever measured in America.

Parts of this are aspects of a tragedy we have created over four centuries. The denial of basic human rights to African Americans and indigenous people and the multitude of barriers in the path of women’s advancement are crucial pieces.

Looking at the just-released report, Hector Sandoval, a University of Florida economist, declared: "In 2018 … top income earners got even larger increases in their income, and one of the reasons for that might well be the tax cut."

The “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” was pushed through Congress in 2017 by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, and signed into law by President Donald Trump. Top-tier stock investors — American and foreign — got most of its benefits as it drove up the national debt. It was passed with little consideration or review, and only after Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, told his Republican Senate colleagues that the flow of campaign donations would be severely impeded by a failure to pass the bill.

The tax cut compounded another enormous political obstacle to the American dream: The vow made five years ago by McConnell to block any proposed raise to the long-out-of-date minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

Lurking behind the politics is "hyper-individualism." Viewing community as unimportant, it’s a philosophy that sees society as nothing more than a collection of disconnected individuals, all fighting each other to acquire the most wealth.

Hyper-individualism was called out last year in the bulwark conservative journal National Review. Michael Hendrix wrote: “Prosperity flows from a healthy community, just as poverty lingers in broken relationships. These are truths that conservatives should voice.”

Robert Putnam, a Harvard University professor of public policy, has documented the damage done by hyper-individualism in America over the last half-century. He begins his 2015 book, “Our Kids,” by declaring: “My hometown was, in the 1950s, a passable embodiment of the American Dream, a place that offered decent opportunity for all the kids in town, whatever their background.

“A half century later, however, life in Port Clinton, Ohio is a split-screen American nightmare, a community in which kids from the wrong side of the tracks that bisect the town can barely imagine the future that awaits the kids from the right side of the tracks. And the story of Port Clinton turns out to be sadly typical of America.”

Note that Putnam gives Port Clinton a “passable” grade in striving toward the American dream; there’s no reference to a mythical golden past. Racism, then and now, he acknowledges, is part of the story. Instead, he uses his hometown, 1950s-era, as his benchmark to measure the ever-widening gaps that have emerged over the last six decades.

Putnam informs of us the potency of social capital, the informal connections and resources that sustain families through crises when they live on the right side of the tracks, but are in short supply on the other side. He sounds the call loud and clear for fulling the commitment that we voice frequently, but often fail to act on: that all of our youth deserve the opportunity to get ahead.

Next year we will choose a president, vice president, 34 senators, and 438 U.S. representatives. We need to look closely at those currently holding office, to see if they have promoted those policies that have worsened the ever-widening economic divide between the haves and have-nots.

America needs to be a community, not a collection of warring profit-driven entities. The building blocks for opportunity —a reasonable wage, affordable college education and access to healthcare— have to be there for all if we truly believe in striving to make real the American dream.

We need to make it clear to all those running for office that we truly believe in our stated value that all Americans, regardless of which side of the tracks they live on, are part of the American family.

Ron Malzer is a retired psychologist and freelance writer who lives in La Crosse. He can be reached at ronsaturday@gmail.com.

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