American dream must be shared
Is the American dream alive or dead in South Carolina?
If you stop and really think about it, this is the most fundamental question one could ask about our state— and the answer says a lot about the kind of people we are.
The American dream is very simple and profound. It has been the driving force behind our country since its earliest days.
We all have our own slightly different definitions. This is mine: If you work hard and play by the rules, your children will be better off than you are. Alexis de Tocqueville described it as “the charm of anticipated success.”
The phrase “American dream” was coined in 1931 by James Truslow Adams in his book “The Epic of America.” He defined it as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. … It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
This dream has motivated millions from all corners of the world to come to America. They have represented all colors, creeds and cultures, but they have shared one thing: a belief in the dream.
The obvious exception is African Americans, who were brought here as slaves. For about half of those brought to North America, Charleston was their point of entry.
One of the great ironies of our history is the descendants of these slaves have become some of the most dedicated, loyal and hopeful Americans. They believe in the American dream despite their historic and present pains.
I was talking with one of the Freedom Riders, those brave young people who in 1961 were willing to suffer horrible beatings and even death for the right to ride in the front of a bus and eat at a restaurant. He said, “Because we were denied the full benefits of the American dream for so long, we were willing to fight the hardest and risk even death to get it… and now we appreciate it the most.”
The dream’s power is still here today. If you need evidence, pick up a newspaper and read about what immigrants, legal and illegal, are willing to endure to get to American soil.
As reported by CNBC in a recent poll, “Rumors of the American dream being dead have been greatly exaggerated. To that point, 63 percent of Americans believe they are living the American dream, up from 59 percent in 2011.”
And what of South Carolina?
Forbes Magazine has developed an American Dream Index to “look at how America’s middle class is faring economically under President Trump.” They combine seven economic indexes and rank each state. You may be surprised that South Carolina ranks sixth. This is great news, but if we examine the study we find its focus is limited to the middle class.
For those of us on the middle rungs of the ladder, the dream is alive and well. Another recent authoritative study shows a very different picture for low-income South Carolina.
The Equality of Opportunity Project at Harvard did an in-depth analysis of economic conditions in every part of the U.S. and tracked how often people were able to move up the economic ladder over time.
The project mapped the geography of upward mobility. It goes from deep red for least mobile to light beige for most mobile. South Carolina was the only state that was deep red, where less than 4.8 percent of children have climbed the ladder to success.
This is not about the racial division between black and white South Carolinians. It is about economic division. For those of us struggling to even get a hand on the lowest rung of the ladder, the American dream is more like a nightmare — worse than in any of the other states.
There truly are two South Carolinas, but the reality is they are not separate. We are one South Carolina.
We cannot succeed as a state until we all succeed. It’s not possible to wall off our suburbs, separate our cities into pockets of affluence and poverty or put a fence at the boundary between urban and rural.
We have tried this in many different ways in our history. It led to more division, poverty, racism, isolation, hostility, violence and bloodshed. It did not work then and it will not work now. It is impractical and immoral.
The American dream must be a shared dream for all of South Carolina or it will be no dream at all.
Phil Noble has a technology firm in Charleston and writes a weekly column for the S.C. Press Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.