America ~ Is It Still a Land of Opportunity?

Obviously, it is getting more and more difficult for the vast majority of young people in America to achieve the same levels of success as their parents and grandparents, at least in terms of personal income.

July 18, 2008  —  We were delighted to learn recently that Stephanie, the oldest daughter of dear friends of ours back in Missouri, David and Nancy Israel, will be graduating from nursing school soon. Although she probably had some financial assistance based on merit, or need, or both, we suspect that her parents still had to dig pretty deep to see her through — her father being a Methodist minister and her mother a school teacher. Both careers are known to be rewarding, but not necessarily in the salary-way.

With the rising cost of higher education in this country outpacing pretty much everything except the cost of health care, more and more parents like David and Nancy are finding it more and more difficult to provide their sons and daughters with a college edu- cation — the “open doorway” to both personal and professional success in life.

To help pay for tax cuts that have primarily benefited the wealthy, President Bush reduced the size and cost of government when he became President in 2001. He stripped $12 billion from the federal student loan program as part of this reduction, and the previous level of funding for this has never been restored. Today, a Pell Grant covers only 33% of a student’s annual college costs. In1975, Pell Grants covered 84% of students’ costs. But this isn’t all the President’s fault. When Bush took office, the cost of tuition at a public four year institution was $3,501.The cost this year, 2008, is $6,185 – an increase of 56.7%. Over this same time period, median household incomes have decreased 2% despite an economy, as measured by the administration’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), that has been expanding.  Because of this burdensome cost, the reduction in aid programs and the government’s favorable policies toward the $85 billion a year student loan industry, over 400,000 qualified high school graduates will not be able to attend college this year.

According to Bill Moyers’s new book, Moyers On Democracy, one-third of all college students graduated with debt in 1993. In 2004, two-thirds did. And, according to the College Board, the total volume of private student loans has grown by 27% since 2001, the year that George Bush became our President. Some of these “private” loans carry interest rates as high as 19%, and most undergraduate students finish with close to $20,000 in student loans whether he or she is able to find a good job or not. This is a 108% increase in just a decade. Compare this to the $11,100 in debt his/her counterpart graduate carried in 1975 paying just 6.8% interest when the government was still making these loans. This was before we started off-shoring many of our better-paying jobs for entry-level graduates. But Stephanie won’t have a problem finding a decent-paying job; nurses are in great and growing demand. Hopefully, she won’t be paying upwards of a third of her salary to retire student loans as some must.

So who has been making all this money in an expanding economy? Good question.

According to a PhD economist, Paul Robin Krugman, who is professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University and also a columnist for The New York Times, if we were to equate the total population of Americans in the civilian labor force with 1,000 people and line them all up left-to-right according to how much they make, then equate their personal incomes with how tall they are, the person in the middle would be six feet eight inches tall. The person on the extreme left would be only 20 inches tall. But the person on the extreme right — wow!  He would be almost 600 feet tall — nearly 5 times taller than his counterpart back in the mid-seventies. The persons to the left of center would have all grown too, reflecting a growing economy, but they would only be about fourteen percent taller today.

So, one might well ask, “Is America still a land of opportunity?” This, I realize, depends on how one defines success. But if income is part of one’s definition of success, the correlation between years of education and success could not be stronger. The following table is from the textbook that I use in my Economics Survey class published by Glenco/McGraw-Hill.


Obviously, it is getting more and more difficult for the vast majority of young people in America to achieve the same levels of success as their parents and grandparents, at least in terms of personal income. And the so-called gender-gap is still very real. But that doesn’t answer the question, “Is America still a land of opportunity?” In the abstract, it certainly is. Odds are now that Stephanie, with her college degree, will enjoy a measure of success, both personally and professionally. But what about those 400,000 otherwise qualified high school graduates that won’t be going to college because it has become too expensive?

As you can see, the ramp to success in this country is getting steeper — the social goal of equal opportunity, more elusive. So, out of curiosity, I decided to find out what people think about America still being a land opportunity. In a recent survey of The World According to Opa readers, I posed this question, “Do you believe that anybody in America can be successful in this day and age if they try hard enough?” Follow-up questions included, “how much do you believe money has to do with success, do you consider yourself to be more liberal or more conservative,” and, “how do you define success?” With 75 responses (more than half of them coming from persons self-identifying as being more con- servative than liberal) I got some very interesting results. From the numbers and correlations I was able to make, the results supported my hypothesis that conservative thinkers are more likely to believe that anyone can still make it in America, but not strongly. The correlation between conservatives and believing this was 82.5 percent. The correlation between liberals and believing was 17.5 percentage points less. Somewhat surprising to me, considering the rising costs of higher education, skyrocketing energy, food and medical costs, and the escalating number of home foreclosures, is that nearly three-fourths of all who responded still believe. So, despite it all, Americans remain an optimistic people.

All my data were from respondents who are affluent enough to have Internet access, mostly middle class, homeowners. So the survey was not entirely valid in that it did not include opinions from people in lower socio-economic circumstances. They, no doubt would be more pessimistic. But, if I included the same number of people from higher socio-economic circumstances too, they tending to be more optimistic, the more inclusive survey would probably balance-out with similar results to that which I already have from middle class homeowners.

Seventy percent of respondents said that they believed money was “somewhat” important as a measure of success, while only 7.5% said that it was “very” important. Twenty-two and a half percent said that money had very little to do with it. Surprise! But the most interesting result, I think, had to do with how respon- dents said they view success. Almost all said that being self-sufficient and able to provide basic needs and wants for loved ones is important. Most also included considerations of self-esteem and being happy with one’s lot in life in their definitions. About 80% included considerations of altruism…being able to give back to society in some way, while a small number said that success simply meant being able to do what one wants to do when one wants to do it. Sixty-nine point seven percent of conservatives included altruism in their definitions; a whopping 92.3% of liberals did the same.

So, I conclude that, for most Americans, equal opportunity has become less equal in recent years. Despite what we teach to our students in classrooms all across the land, and despite what most Americans still believe, America is not the land of opportunity that it was for us Baby Boomers and for our kids, the Generation Xers. I also conclude that, at least among those who read my blog, in addition to being optimistic, Americans are a generous people. But the most generous of Americans are those who call themselves liberal. It will be these voters who, I predict, if they are successful this year in restoring the White House and full-control of the Congress to Democrats, will begin to restore to us all to something closer to equal opportunity. And may God bless us all, rich and poor alike.

 I invite your comments, both pro and con.

Published in: on July 18, 2008 at 12:27 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I think that American generosity has its limits. With the downturn of the economy, and large increases in food and gas prices, I am seeing a slowing of donations to our local food pantry here in Janesville, Wisconsin. I worry that as jobs are lost (the GM plant is closing), folks will not be able to get their basic needs met. The people who can give feel overwhelmed with all the other needs of the community (the free clinic needs money, the botanical garden needs money, the homeless shelters need money, etc)

    And you are right about the college debts. My daughter’s roommate has had to finance her education with loans, as well as work, to get her degree. She worries that the debt load will be hard to pay back.

  2. A recent Time/Rockerfeller Foundation poll found that 85% of Americans think the U.S. economy is seriously off-track. When asked, 66% of all respondents to this poll agreed with the following: Even if you work hard and play by the rules, you can no longer expect to afford health care, college and a secure retirement.

    Agreement was highest among African Americans, those making $20,000 a year or less, and those between 40 and 64 years of age. But agreement was not far behind in other groups.

    The poll did not discriminate between liberal and conservative thinkers as mine did, but 78% said that they want more government help. They, I think, would be less likely to receive it with Republicans controlling the White House and hindering progress in the Congress on progressive legislation for the next four years. That’s just one big reason why I am supporting Barack Obama for President.

  3. Opa,
    Thanks for mailings, I have been waiting for a truly intellectual discussion, that an educator is comitted to present. Send me no more for I read the same in NYT, LAT and the news on the TV every night. Please remove my name.
    Joe is a liberal and he has real doubts about your man. Liberal programs like the one that permits the New York rep with wealth rent four apts with rent control give me doubts about a man that is all Hat but no cattle. My comment on July 5th said it all.

  4. Dear Semmler,

    I admit that I have tended to be more one-sided in my postings of late, since I no longer have misgivings or reservations about the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party. It is acceptable and understandable, however, that you do have reservations. That’s what my blog is all about — discussing differences. But whatever your reservations may be, in my view, matters not when considering the only real alternative that we have come November, which is more of the same economic and foreign policies that we’ve had for most of eight years now, policies that have led us to the brink of depression, policies that keep us wedded to unbridled capitalism and the demise of the middle class, dependent on carbon based fuels, and committed to sifting away from democracy to plutocracy.

    Not voting, or voting for an Independent or the Libertarian Party’s candidate is tantamount to the same thing — wasting your right to help make a choice whether to say the course, or to choose a different direction.

    By the phrase, “all hat but no cattle,” I presume that you mean all talk and no substance. Yes, I agree, Obama talks well and has made big promises, promises on which he cannot deliver by himself, even if elected. But he acknowledges this, and I admire him for it. Change will come only if the people walk away from the voting booth in November with a firm commitment to remain engaged in the democratic process. We must collectively hold government accountable, all of us, and “throw the bums out,” be they Democrat or Republican, if they act in self-interest rather than the common good.

    Notwithstanding, I will, as you have asked, remove your address from further invitations. But I thank you for your posted comments in the past.

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