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Democrats and the Land of Opportunity

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Democrats and the Land of Opportunity

It is the stuff of primary school education-in America, you can become whatever you want, no matter how humble your origins. You can be president, like Abraham Lincoln, or a captain of industry, like Andrew Carnegie, or an inventor, like Thomas Edison. Everything is possible as long as you work hard and play fair.

Alas, the truth is not so inspiring. A 2003 study reported in Business Week found that the chance that someone born in poverty will rise above the level of his beginnings is now less than 50 percent. We're not talking here of the chance that a poor person will become a president or a CEO or a scientist; we're talking of the chance that he or she will rise, even minimally, to a higher condition of well-being. The engine of upward mobility has been stopped in its tracks.

Causes of the halt are many, and none of them is hard to guess. Corporation strategies of controlling labor costs-hiring temps and part-timers, fighting unions, removing career incentives and possibilities, outsourcing to low-paying contractors-play a big role by increasing the disparity between rich and poor. What fixes that disparity into permanent class lines is the lack of access to higher education. In the first 30 years after World War II, a college degree with little long-term debt was the ticket up and out. Now, the middle class-rapidly disappearing even as its members work two, sometimes three jobs to make ends meet-is less and less capable of providing a higher education for its children.

The problem is not simply economic; politics plays its part by encouraging and confirming what is harshest in the new economy. The current Republican Congress continues to allow tax credits for corporations that outsource or move offshore. It grants tax breaks for the richest one percent of the population and puts huge deficits on the credit cards of our children. While padding its own salaries, it refuses to raise the nation's minimum wage, allowing the incomes of America's bottom rung of wage earners to sink to an all-time low. It plans to revoke the estate tax, making it ever more certain, in the words of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, that the accident of whose womb a child comes from will be the best predictor of future prosperity. Finally, that same Congress ups the interest rates on loans to college students, putting higher education out of reach for more and more young people in the middle class.

None of this is surprising. Author and radio talk show host Thom Hartmann reminds us that the playbook of Republican neo-cons is Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind, published in 1953. Kirk laid it all out: Conservatives uphold the model of social hierarchy. Not social mobility, but clear distinctions of social hierarchy. The privileged justly continue to thrive and rule, while the masses rightly struggle and inevitably submit to being ruled.

Fifty years later we are well into our descent into a rigid and mean class system. Statistics tell us that a rich child these days nearly always passes on her inherited advantage, while a poor child, if she is to improve on her unlucky start, now faces odds two or three times greater than those that confronted her counterparts 30 years ago. That poor child has less chance of escaping her lot than a similar child in Canada or any country in Europe, including England, a nation that still indulges aristocracy and the titles-Peer and Knight, Lord and Lady-of class distinction.

Early Americans wanted to leave all that behind them. So dedicated were they to making the New World a land of opportunity for all that they even adopted a dictionary-Webster's-for the purpose of standardizing pronunciation. Someday, they hoped, no one would be able to tell by how a person spoke or spelled a word whether he was born to wealth or status. Not even the barrier of language would stand in the way of a person's clear shot at accomplishing his dreams.

Even earlier-and here is the most terrible irony-our founding fathers severed ties with the mother country, in part to secure the unalienable right to pursue happiness. Whenever any form of government, they asserted, becomes destructive of the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.

We wonder if Democrats will ever rediscover their message and find a clear and ringing voice to proclaim it. Here a concise call to action: Make this country once more the land of opportunity. Make it possible for everyone who works hard and plays by the rules, even the child unlucky enough to be born in poverty, to share in the American dream. That stirring call-and certainly not the present Congress' frivolous call to make it unconstitutional to burn the flag-can unite all Americans in honorable patriotism.
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James Parker has retired from careers as a professor of theology and as a public relations officer for a research institution.
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