Our American Nightmare? The New American Dream Is Much Different Than It Used To Be

November 17th 2014

Lindsay Haskell

A new study published in the "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology," revealed that people raised in lower income households are more likely to make impulsive decisions that harm their future prospects than those raised in affluent households. It's the latest in a series of revelations that a hard life may be inherited

Some may see these results and instantly conclude "if only poor people changed their actions, then things would be different for them." However, this study brings to light a much bigger problem: instability in low income households and deeply rooted social inequality. When there is little clue as to where your next meal is coming from, or how you will afford transportation, long-term planning becomes fallacy. As a result, 62% of Americans born into the bottom fifth of incomes will remain there.

So now we must ask ourselves what obstacles are standing in the way of Americans achieving upward mobility? One undeniable barrier is America's broken education system. Studies show that schools with higher poverty rates have lower access to high-performing teachers and, unsurprisingly, their standardized test scores suffer. In fact, the gap in test scores between lower-income and wealthier students has increased an alarming 40% since the 1960's. Schools mostly rely on state and local governments for funding, which amounts to state sales and income taxes, as well as local property taxes. People in neighborhoods with more expensive homes thereby have access to schools with better resources. 

With less money in their household and in their schools, it is no wonder that poorer students feel overlooked and stuck in their current situation. This is especially detrimental, considering that many of these students live with younger parents (age 18 to 24) that are out of school and out of work, and hence, are ill-equipped to provide for them on multiple levels. With half of out of work and out of school youths being high school drop-outs, lower-income children lack a parental role model that can teach them the value of a high school or higher education. This lack of exposure to an example of how an education can benefit an individual, combined with less educational resources in the school, leaves many lower-income children with nowhere to turn to learn the proper skills to ensure their financial future.

As M. Night Shyamalan, the famed movie maker, education-reform advocate and author of I Got Schooled told OurTime.org, low income kids are consistently being told "you are powerless, you are meaningless, the world isn't for you, there is no where for you to go." They are being pounded with this message, he claims, from as early as elementary school. Children born to more affluent families, meanwhile, are being bombarded with messages of empowerment. 

When this sense of powerlessness is ingrained at such a young age, it is nearly impossible to have hope for a different future. And by the time these kids reach the age to attend college (which has its own set of issues for lower-income students), they are already so far behind their more affluent counterparts, it is almost impossible for them to catch up.

We learn to view the world through the lens of our environment, which explains why neighborhoods have such a large impact on one's future financial situation. A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that the economic segregation of neighborhoods effected mobility; in particular, urban areas with distinctly separate wealthy and poorer sections had lower levels of success among the underprivileged. Logically speaking, this makes sense - with no peers or neighbors to serve as examples of a different lifestyle, people living in areas of concentrated poverty have no reason to believe that their actions can impact their lot in life. This is troubling, considering economic segregation has been on the rise since the 1970's and is exacerbated by the growing education gap. With college graduates earning 73% more than high school graduates in 2011, more cities are being overrun by these workers, who are able to pay higher rents and thus, push out lower-income individuals. This increased gentrification of cities further alienates poorer individuals and perpetuates the cycle of poverty.

"Ultimately this particular thing we're talking about is the vestiges of racism that we began the country with and have come into this form," says Shyamalan.

With little access to educational resources, finances, or role models, how are individuals raised in lower-income households expected to know and utilize the same decision-making rationale that those in affluent areas do? It is impossible for us to ignore the effects of the failing education system and increased economic disparity on a child, as well as the inevitable future consequences of these predicaments. As a country, we need to make closing the economic and education gaps a priority, and vote for the legislators that will promote these interests as well.