For many students, college is a time of growth and change. We leave the comfort of our young lives as idealistic dreamers. We enter the world expecting new and expanding horizons. We hope to affirm the American worldview that we have been brought up with: that hard work, education and a little luck will carry us straight to the top of the economic food chain. Often I have heard young people discuss their desire to make more money, to break free of the cycle of poverty and to finally arrive in that long-sought job. Unfortunately, for those born into poverty, the odds are already stacked against them and are even worse for African American and Hispanic families.
Any amount of reading or researching will reveal how deep this divide goes. The top 1 percent of households maintains an exorbitant amount of the nation’s wealth. The top 5 percent is staggering. This fact may be in keeping with many peoples’ love of the free market and capitalism, but the other important factor to consider is upward mobility. While the news media likes to emphasize the rare rags to riches story, breaks like this are far from the norm. The reality is that the economic setting you are born in has too great a bearing on how far you will make it.
Naysayers would have us believe that the poor do not work as hard as the rich, or that they are being left behind as a result of their own philosophy and practices. Imagine the model of our economy for a moment, and you will see the flaw in their argument. In order for the rich to remain rich, there must be a working class. There must be the gas station attendants, construction workers, factory line employees, crossing guards, truck drivers, cooks, teachers and fast food employees. The wealthy rely on the labor that is generated by some of the poorest and hardest-working employees in our country.
As much as I wish it were not the case, there is a problem with our distribution of wealth. Every time someone tries to discuss the disadvantaged poor, there is another group who cries “Socialism!” Lobbyists and politicians try to cut food stamps, Medicare, Welfare and Unemployment while the military-industrial complex chews up our tax money and commits us to foreign conflicts. We talk about rebuilding at home, but face opponents at every political juncture. As a result of poor rulings by the Supreme Court, wealthy citizens have become key players in politics, pouring money wherever their interests see fit.
Being raised by a single mother and a teacher taught me to value the service of educators. My mother struggled through college while raising my brother and me. After a difficult road, she entered the job market, making a very small amount of money. She worked long hours, often into the middle of the night. She loved working with children, helping to guide them and teach them. I have heard people say, “Well if you don’t like it then find something else.” This is a poor excuse for the rates that we pay our teachers who provide an essential service to our young. Raising the minimum wage and showing appreciation for people whose jobs are integral to our society would be a good start.
As a college student on the verge of graduation, I worry about how I will fit. As a person who wants to help people and see this nation grow, I fear that my contribution will go unnoticed. I see wonderful people struggling around me, and wonder: Is this really what the founding fathers intended? What has happened to the American dream?