To set the time frame, this past January I turned 62. Twice in my lifetime the US government put into effect affirmative programs that launched the country on an arc the results of which was the greatest, most prolonged and most widely enjoyed national economic surge in human history.
Yes, there were recessions, especially during Dwight Eisenhower’s two terms. But it’s the protracted trajectory, the long shot, from which this commentary commences, and the proposal that, unless we seriously engage equivalent national programs, we could be witness to the very real, very tragic end of “the American dream.”
The first federal program was the World War II — broadened to include Korean War vets — GI Bill that spurred housing construction and gave millions of young men a college education they never would have been able to even dream of otherwise.
The second was the federal government’s response, after the Soviet Union beat us into space. No cost was too great a burden, no obstacle too challenging, en route to educating America’s youth, to compete with and to surpass the perceived technological superiority of our most vaunted rival.
Billions upon billions were expended in both programs, and no one (well, very few) complained of the price tags.
The GI Bill kept millions of returning vets from flooding the workforce while concomitantly providing the nation with a highly trained cadre of upwardly mobile engineers and scientists and business leaders and . . .. Regardless those were the results, the purposes were to recognize the sacrifices borne by those who served our country militarily during periods when it most demanded from them those sacrifices, and to slow the flow into a workforce that could not absorb them fully.
The second was 100% a dedication to educating as many as we possibly could. The country’s security was clearly at stake.
And what the expenditure of those billions and billions bought the country was a thriving middle-class and an industrial powerhouse that were the envy of the world. Those who, like my own father, opted to not enter college benefited almost as much as if they had delayed starting a family, on behalf of pursuing a higher education. Because the industrial unions were strong, across the land came the establishment of the 40-hour workweek, workplace safety, paid overtime, paid vacations, fully paid-for medical and dental benefits, paid defined benefit pensions, and employment security.
What those expended billions and billions bought was the opportunity to escape poverty! In the absence of those programs, in an industrialized society, the lower income class would have been exponentially larger and the middle-class significantly smaller. Aside from what the aggregated country got, what 150 million Americans got was a chance they never would have gained without the beneficence of heavy federal funding.
To preemptively counter calls I can already hear, that America has always been a land of opportunity for those willing to “work hard and play by the rules,” let me introduce the fact of the statistically normal bell curve. It’s visually divided into five segments called quintiles. On each end are the tails, the much less populated extremes: those who will achieve no matter what their generative circumstances and those who will not, again, no matter how lucky or how unlucky they were to begin with. Moving in from each tail are the next better populated segments. And finally, we reach the middle, where the overwhelming bulk of a normal population finds itself.
An example how it is that the tails are to be disregarded draws from my experience, listening to my father — a designer at Ford Motor in Dearborn — complain loudly and bitterly when the federal government mandated first padded dashboards, then other safety features be installed on American vehicles. “The overwhelming cause of accidents is the nut holding the steering wheel!” That overlooked two facts. One was that, given X miles driven nationally, the insurance industry data proved conclusively there were going to be Y accidents which would result in Z costs. The second was that all drivers are human, and our levels of attentiveness rise and fall in patterns not unlike radio frequencies, and nothing was ever going to change the construction of the wiring in the human brain. You can improve your odds of not being involved in an accident, but you can’t eliminate them. And no matter what you do, from a strictly probability perspective, you’re going to find yourself near the middle of the bell curve.
The very same objective probability analysis pertains to what’s going on today with the American educational system — K through 12, and college — and one’s un-spun, real-life, genuine chances of escaping poverty, if that’s where one begins, and of entering and staying in the middle-class, if that’s your starting point.
As the saying goes, “If someone is to pull himself up by his own bootstraps, one must first have boots.” Since Ronald Reagan’s inaugural, more and more find they’ve begun without boots, or those fortunate to have had them, had retreads that were without straps, while those who began with Gucci’s today have gained the capacity to literally buy store-fulls of Gucci products, diamond-studded Rolexes, and more.
All that my father, and most of the fathers in my neighborhood, had was a high school diploma. My best friend’s father didn’t even have that. They worked in one of the rust-belt factories, assembly-lines or offices. They all bought a home in a middle-class community, new cars every three years or so, fed and clothed their families, took vacations (albeit modest), participated in golf or bowling, invested for retirements that were beyond the corporate pensions, had fully-paid medical and dental benefits, and none of the mothers worked outside the home, or had to. Life in the middle-class was good.
Those of us in the baby-boomer generation were the downstream as well as the direct beneficiaries of the two generative federal programs note above. I secured my degree from the California State University system. Had I commenced the quest in one of the area’s community colleges, except for the $10.00 enrollment fee, there was no tuition cost. As far as university tuition went, it was something around $45.00 per quarter, for as many hours as I could handle, which averaged 20. I never worked while actively in school. I’d work for six months, then take a couple quarters of classes. Jobs at wages that enabled my scheme were plentiful.
But what about today’s kids, our children, and what about theirs? Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party’s primary objectives were to get rid of the unions and to eliminate as much of any remnant of a nationally sponsored and financed social net as they were able. The “family values” cover that so many bought and are yet buying was just that: cover for what the GOP was really after. And this explains disproportionately much of why everything that benefited my parents’ and my generation is now gone.
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