Recapturing the American Dream

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How would you recapture the American Dream?

What are your solutions to revitalizing the American dream? The Des Moines Register will examine how Iowa and the nation can ensure opportunity.

Should the emphasis be education, such as access to preschool? Or efforts at improving high school graduation rates and college readiness? Expanded training programs for laid-off or underskilled workers? Or more efforts to help the working poor, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, or efforts to help Americans save? More intervention programs to help kids in trouble?


Group Wants U.S. Rebirth of Opportunity
Economic mobility has become more difficult here, studies indicate.

February 4, 2012

Source: Des Moines Register
Written by
: Lynn Hicks

Is the self-made American an endangered species?

Our history celebrates the man or woman who overcame adversity and disadvantage to reach great heights. It’s the American way: Get a good education, work hard, and the good life is yours.

But a growing body of evidence undermines our claim as the land of opportunity. It’s easier to move up the economic ladder in several European nations than in the United States, according to studies by Pew Charitable Trusts and others.

Politicians from both parties, including Rick Santorum and President Barack Obama, have raised the same concerns. A coalition called Opportunity Nation is leading the charge for economic mobility.

Iowa became the first state to support the national movement. Gov. Terry Branstad has declared February “Opportunity in Iowa Month” and encouraged all Iowans to take action to “reinvigorate the American dream.”

Sounds like something we can all get behind, right? But when we dig into causes and solutions, the typical tensions emerge.

John Stauffer, a Harvard professor and former Iowan, said the question over how individuals can rise above their circumstances has long been controversial.

“Conservatives want to downplay the role of social forces and the environment. Liberals downplay the role of individual volition,” he said. “Both take extreme positions. Both are clearly wrong.”

Both sides also need to find solutions to the growing income inequality. “Based on all evidence, the more stratified a society is, the harder it is to rise up,” he said.

Stauffer is a scholar of self making. His books include “Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln,” in which he traces how Lincoln — “known as poor white trash” — and Douglass, a former slave, became “the two pre-eminent self-made men in American history.”

Stauffer’s own story contains elements of the self-made journey. He came from a “solidly middle-class home” where both parents were college educated. His father started as a farm-town journalist in Nebraska and rose up as a manager in the Northwestern Bell system.

A state tennis champion who graduated from Des Moines Roosevelt in 1977, Stauffer enrolled at Duke University on a tennis scholarship and studied mechanical engineering. After becoming vice president of investments at Paine Webber, he went back to school to study literature and history. He now chairs the History of American Civilization program at Harvard.

He credits much of his success to public education, including a solid start at Greenwood Elementary in Des Moines. “I can’t speak highly enough about my education. I feel very fortunate,” he said.

He worries, however, that the cost of tuition today can keep the poor in place. “For decades, education was the ideal way to rise up,” he said.

Concern over economic mobility is nothing new, Stauffer said. He compares the current era to the period of 1880-1930, when the inequality of wealth increased and the poor had a harder time rising. But the current level of angst over the American dream is unusual since World War II, he said.

High unemployment and the housing crisis have fed those concerns, of course. But economists point to longer-term trends, such as the loss of middle-class jobs to overseas competition. New technology creates jobs but also destroys them as computers replace workers. Innovation is a double-edged sword.

Supporters of Opportunity Iowa, the local branch of the national movement, will emphasize education and worker retraining as solutions. The group plans to offer free career exploration and assessment services, help connect youth with summer jobs and use social media and summits to discuss opportunity.

United Way, Character Counts, the Boys and Girls Club, AARP and other groups are involved. Those nonprofits already see the impact of a shifting economy, changing populations, evolving family structures and other forces that affect opportunity in Iowa.

“I don’t think we adapted well enough” to those changes, said Barry Griswell, CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines. He and Rob Denson, president of Des Moines Area Community College, serve on the Leadership Council of Opportunity Nation.

The national group chose to start in Iowa in part because of Denson’s efforts to educate and retrain Iowa workers, said Mark Edwards, executive director of Opportunity Nation.

Griswell and Denson are self-made men who are continually remaking themselves.

Denson was raised on a farm near Homestead, Ia. He worked his way through college as a truck driver and became an assistant dean at Iowa State and the University of Florida. He ran a successful law practice, and after retirement, he started a new career as a community college president.

Griswell’s background has become legend. The son of an alcoholic, abusive father, he grew up in poverty in Atlanta. By the time he was 16, Griswell had moved 16 times and spent time in juvenile detention. But he learned to work hard and attended college on a basketball scholarship. He rose through the insurance industry to become CEO and chairman of Principal Financial Group. In 2003, Griswell was inducted into the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, the hall of fame for the self-made.

Griswell and Denson know how to achieve the American dream. They also know it will take more than inspiring stories to help many Iowans do the same.