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The American Dream is on Life Support

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Message Dustin Ensinger

"Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further... And one fine morning."- - F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby 


Those words - Fitzgerald's take on the American Dream which he thought was corrupted by greed and the empty pursuit of material possessions - were soon forgotten as the excesses of the Roaring "-20's gave way to the to the bread lines and Hoovervilles of the of the Great Depression.  Now Fitzgerald"-s prose seems more prescient than ever.   

Today, American wages are stagnating, costs of everything from health care to education to gasoline are skyrocketing, standards of living are decreasing and for the first time in the post-war era, Americans are faced with the prospect that their children will not live as well as they did.   

It seems in today's economy, no matter how fast Americans run or how far they stretch, upward mobility is firmly out of their grasps.  For years it was assumed that America was home to the ultimate meritocracy - work hard, play by the rules and you can achieve the American Dream.  Ever increasingly that seems like an unattainable ideal rather than a founding principal of this nation. 

"Today, the cost of that dream is rising faster than ever before,"- President Barack Obama said during the campaign.  "While some have prospered beyond imagination in this global economy, middle-class Americans--as well as those working hard to become middle class--are seeing the American Dream slip further and further away." 

Indeed, while median family incomes increased from the 1940s through the 1970s, those gains have slowed to a trickle, stopped, or, in some cases, actually reversed.  During that period, those at the bottom of the economic ladder saw their wages increase roughly on par with those at the top of the ladder.  By 1979, as the era of globalization was ushered into America, that previous era seemed more like an anomaly.  From 1979 to 2000, the top 20 percent of taxpayers in America realized three-fourths of all income gains over that period.   

That trend has actually hastened as of late.  From 2000 to 2005, the productivity of American workers increased by 16 percent, yet they witnessed their average income decline by 2.9 percent.   

Possibly the most indicative statistic proving the American Dream is on life support is the fact that, when adjusted for inflation, a man in his 30's in 2004 will make 12 percent less doing the same job than he would have in 1974, according to the Economic Policy Institute.  In 2007, chief executives of the 500 biggest companies in the U.S. made an average of $12.8 million apiece. That put their daily salary of $51,200 ahead of the typical workers' annual salary, which was $42,650, according to Forbes

"The new research we're seeing now suggests that up to 100 million people live in families that are earning less money than their parents did at similar ages,"- Matt Miller, author of "The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: Letting Go of the Old Ways of Prosperity to Unleash a New Prosperity" told Newsweek.  "Even if jobs don't move offshore, the fact that so many other jobs can be performed offshore is going to impose an effective wage cap on a lot of categories of work in the U.S. We're going to have to accept that upward mobility is at risk for a large chunk of the population, and we have to take steps to improve people's lives in spite of that."- 

The root cause of stagnating wages, the widening gap between the rich and poor and the dying American Dream is inexorably linked to America's failed trade policies. "Free Trade"- has opened up U.S. markets to cheaper foreign goods while simultaneously leading to the decline of America's manufacturing base, its blue-collar workforce and its entire middle class.  Manufacturing jobs create a tide that allows everyone's boat to rise because manufacturing jobs produce wealth for all Americans, not just those toiling in factories.  Unless America and its policymakers come to the realization that without manufacturing jobs there is no middle-class and without a middle class there is no American Dream, the green light will remain ever elusive.   

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Dustin Ensinger graduated from The Ohio State University with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Political Science. He is a contributing journalist for EconomyInCrisis.org.
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