In this week’s feature (“Has the bubble burst?”), Sasha Abramsky tells the poignant story of how a local couple came within a hairsbreadth of losing their North Highlands home. “Exotic” financing allowed them to buy a house with nothing down and then slammed them with unconscionable hikes in interest rates just as the real-estate market hit the skids in the Sacramento area.
They were determined not to lose the house. Ultimately, they paid a high price to keep it. But that house, and the step up in social class that came with it, is for them a guarantee of the American Dream. If they just worked hard enough, they believed, success would come just as it did for the characters in Horatio Alger’s 19th-century rags-to-riches novels.
They’re not alone. An astonishing number of Americans are also true believers. Some 80 percent told The New York Times last year they believe it’s still possible today to start out poor and become rich. Despite evidence that social mobility has declined over the past few decades, 75 percent of Americans believe the likelihood of moving up in social class is better than or the same today as it was 30 years ago. And 83 percent feel they’re either in the same or a higher social class than when they were growing up.
The truth is that while there’s movement among the middle classes—both upward and downward—very few ever make it from the poorest to the richest. And the other class divisions continue to widen, with the middle classes losing ground, while the rich solidify their position at the top with the support of the oligarchy that now runs this country.
To move closer to the classless ideal of this country’s founders, a hard look at the hollow promise of the American Dream in its purely materialist manifestation is needed. Thirty-one years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. invoked a different image of the American Dream, one that holds that all Americans are created equal, while noting that “sometimes a class system can be as vicious and evil as a system based on racial injustice.”
It’s worth some thought.