06 September 2006

The American Caste

This sad but oh so true commentary from Tuesday evening’s Marketplace:

BETH SHULMAN: At one time, education was our great equalizer. Children got an equal chance to rise based solely on their own potential, regardless of their family background. But today, education is deepening the economic divide.
Rising costs at public and private universities are outpacing student aid. Meanwhile federal tax breaks for college actually help wealthy students more than poor ones.
It turns out that families with incomes of at least $92,000 get more tax breaks for college than families making less than a third of that. Tax breaks simply don't help the poor the way they do the rich. They often don't make enough to qualify. And studies show that financial aid for college goes increasingly to wealthier students.
That doesn't bother institutions of higher learning. In fact, they're skewing their dollars towards helping affluent children on purpose. They want to show that they've bet on horses that win instead of helping people equally at the starting gate. This way, the gap between the educated haves and have-nots keeps growing.
Since 1980, the earnings gap between college entrants and high school graduates more than doubled. Enrollment rates of the rich at four-year colleges, the ticket to higher pay, increased by 20 percent in the last decade.
But poor students' enrollments are actually falling. Any increase in postsecondary education among the poor has been mostly at two-year colleges.
This shouldn't surprise us. Tuition's an expensive, up-front investment. Many students can't afford to borrow the amounts needed for higher education as costs go up.
If we want to claim education as the great equalizer again, we need to put our money where it needs to go, to the children of everyday working Americans.
If not, instead of giving every child a chance to excel, we face an America that simply keeps children in their economic place.
RYSSDAL: Beth Shulman is author of "The Betrayal of Work."

Coupled with this commentary on the disappearance of the “American Dream” from last Thursday this is just a recent representation of a scary but not-so-new trend of American society. Call it what you want…a caste system, apartheid, the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat…there is and has been a growing gap between the haves and have-nots that has been ignored for far too long. Why is it ignored? Because America, despite all our checks and balances, our talk of meritocracy, our belief in the “common good,” our calls for personal freedom and responsibility, is a class society. In a class society, the ruling class, no matter it’s good intentions in providing for the good of all will not...cannot…give up its power.

There has always been a sort of ruling class in American politics, but the beauty of the system established from the very beginnings of Revolution out of principles of the Enlightenment is that it has always facilitated upward mobility. The ruling class was not a closed class (except to women those of a skin tone other than white…but that’s for another post). One could be born the son of a farmer in a one room log cabin and find himself President of the nation one day. The sons and daughters of coalminers and mill workers were given more-than-adequate educations in public schools and provided opportunities to go on to higher education. There was a time when you didn’t just hope and dream that your children would be better off than you yourself…you expected it. You expected to be repaid for your hard work and perseverance; after all…this is America.

But America, as these pieces illustrate, has failed her working class. One can no longer pick herself up by her bootstraps and fight for a better life. We make it impossible for the sons and daughters of blue collar labor to get a college degree. Not to mention the fact that the blue collar labor that once meant a hard working job in a mill or factory that provided the family with benefits and a pension now means a job flipping burgers or stocking shelves at Wallyworld for meager pay and little or no healthcare. But what has led us into these precarious waters? Is it a fault of the system? Maybe…if we look to Marx we find capitalism playing out in just this way: a growing proletariat becoming more dissatisfied by the day eventually overthrows the whole shebang. Is it a fault of the people? Most definitely, for we define the system and the institutions. We created the laws that now allow corporate giants to create the laws. We’ve allowed families to maintain fortunes far beyond necessity…because if you earned it you get to keep it, right? Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “What is the most important for democracy is not that great fortunes should not exist, but that great fortunes should not remain in the same hands. In that way there are rich men, but they do not form a class.” In this we have failed and failed miserably. We have allowed a class to emerge and now they act as any reasonable ruler would…they protect their power and hoard all other power available. They band together and grow their fortunes. Maybe we’ll get lucky and it’ll trickle down, but I doubt it.

No comments: