A Dollar and a Dream A Closer Look at Poverty in the Land of Opportunity

Two men sit on the edge of a lake dreaming of rabbits. And that's all they have. Dreams. One of them is simple. He likes ketchup, soft things, and his best-friend. The other is clever. He likes money, women, and a warm place to sleep. Their names are Lennie and George. They are the protagonists in John Steinbeck’s 1930’s novel Of Mice And Men and they are stuck. They are stuck in a land that promises them this dream. A land that guarantees their right to pursue a ranch with rabbits and a big front porch, but guarantees little else. The United States' Declaration of Independence guarantees its citizens "the unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness" (Jefferson). I always assumed that these rights were given at birth. My experience of the world has only confirmed this thinking. I have every opportunity to succeed. I grew up in a wealthy town where I knew I would go to college, I knew I would get a job. I knew I would be happy.

My first experience of poverty- that I can remember- was when I was 7 years old and at a Philadelphia Flyers game. I don’t remember the score, or who they played, or if it was my first game; but I do remember begging my parents for one last slice of pizza for the ride home. (My parents obliged.) I remember flooding out of the Wachovia Center in a sea of orange and black, pizza in hand, a cheesy smile plastered between my black hat and orange scarf. I remember drifting in the current and seeing a man wearing an old army coat in a wheelchair. He didn’t have legs. I remember stopping at this man in the middle of that ocean and giving him my pizza. When my parents rushed over, they asked what I was doing and told me not to separate from the group. My mother dragged me to the car and berated me for almost giving her a heart attack. I stared out the window and thought about that man. Looking back, I guess I didn’t know how the man got there. How he became the guy sitting in the cold outside of a Flyers game begging for food. I wondered if I could be that man or if that man was ever me. Now, I wonder if that man had the same opportunity to succeed. I wonder if the American Dream- the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness- is more than just a catchy ideal. I wonder if it’s real.

Dash Snow/A LIFE’S WORK “Untitled Polaroid” of a soul laid low.

Though my personal experience with poverty is limited, I found that others do not share the same luxury of experience. While the poverty rate has decreased since the Great Recession in 2008, many people still struggle to find their footing in the United States’ economy. In VIctor Tan Chen’s article, “All Hollowed Out,” he describes a man who is in conflict with the American ideal in a post-recession United States. The man he describes is white and 47-years old. He was a forklift operator who lost his job, and in-turn his family when his wife decided to leave him: “The stress of failing to find a job and being alone made him too depressed to eat, and he started taking antidepressants” (Chen 1). I found that this is a common trend. People lose their jobs. The stress weighs them down, tears apart their families, and leaves them with nothing. People fill these voids in different ways. And though the pursuit of happiness for them might remain elusive, one guarantee they do have is an early grave.

While the United States is one of the world’s greatest superpowers, poverty has continued to be a stain on the American ideal, leaving a large number of people to struggle for the inalienable rights the country promises its citizens. The right to life is an important one. Each citizen in the United States is promised the right to live, which can be interpreted in a number of different ways. I interpret this to mean that each person should not have to worry about the basic need to survive, and thus has the opportunity to focus on the living part: making a family, working, contributing to our collective economy and their own personal financial stability. But when I looked into the link between poverty and death in the United States I was shocked at how many people are excluded from this right. Bernie Sanders, in a piece for the Huffington Post, observed that, “according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States has both the highest overall poverty rate and the highest childhood poverty rate of any major industrialized country on earth” (Sanders 1). In a country that prides itself on being land of opportunity, it seems that success is more elusive here than in many other developed nations. Sanders notes that people in poverty do not have good health care, they struggle to feed themselves, put a roof over their heads (1). Other developed nations ensure these “luxuries” through systems like universal healthcare, welfare programs, and rehabilitation services as rights to their constituents. How can a person live if they aren’t healthy, well fed, and comfortable? What good is an opportunity if you don’t have the means to seize it?

The average wage earners in Saudi Arabia and Oman are actually closer to financing the American dream than those working in the U.S. SOURCE: THEREDPIN

Though a former self would have blamed the poor for not working harder to transcend their dire situation, I found that hard work is not the only factor in achieving social mobility. President Obama said in a press conference, “a child born in the top 20% [of the economic hierarchy] has about a ⅔ chance of staying at or near the top. A child born in the bottom 20% has a 1/20 chance of making it to the top” (CNNMoney 0:39). These numbers were shocking to me. Not only did this confirm that I was set up for success, but it also reinforced that my opportunity is not equal to that of the less fortunate. I think back to Lennie and George, or even the man from Chen’s article and can’t help but believe that no amount of reasonably hard work could have saved them. According to CNNMoney’s Steve Hargreaves, a stable family life, access to high quality education, and social policies all contribute to an individual’s ability to navigate the economic hierarchy (1). Considering that many of the United States’s social policies were not yet in place at the time of Steinbeck’s novel, I find it interesting that, despite the implementation of these systems, the American Dream remains as elusive as ever. I wonder what the impact of these social policy systems like social security is on the impoverished. Are these systems designed to support the pursuit of our first amendment rights or do they help the more fortunate maintain their elite status?

One social system that I thought would be interesting to investigate was Social Security. It has recently come into opposition since the election of Donald Trump and has become a hot button topic in the United State’s larger economic discourse. My initial understanding of Social Security was that it is basically a retirement plan. Working people pool their money together into a giant pot that all contributors get to stick their hand in when they finish working. After a closer look, I found that this system is much more sophisticated than a giant piggy bank for working Americans. According to Chad Stone of US News, out of “more than 60 million beneficiaries [of Social Security], 44 million are retired workers and their family members, 6 million are survivors of deceased workers, and almost 11 million are disabled workers and their family members” (1). In essence, Social Security helps preserve the right to life and liberty by ensuring the financial security of citizens through life insurance policies and disability insurance. More importantly, in 2015, it protected 22 million Americans from poverty, including 1.1 million children (Stone 1). Though their contributions are considered modest, the existence of social programs, like social security, is vital to keeping people out of the basement of our economic structure, a place that is nearly impossible to climb out of in America.

Consider the protagonists in Of Mice and Men. They have a dream. They have an ideal that they have been told is a reality and in an effort to achieve it they lose themselves to the cruel reality of the world they live in. Though policies have been put in place to combat this unfortunate trope, the narrative remains eerily similar. People are guaranteed the right to live and make choices, but aren’t provided the means to these rights. People are told they live in the land of opportunity, but only a small percentage have any realistic chance at maintaining the American ideal of success. People are sick, and tired, and hungry and we expect them to ignore their struggles, struggles they were most likely born into, and work hard to change their own narrative. It’s easier said than done, and the lack of empathy in our country, and the strong me-first capitalistic mentality has threatened the institutions that make the dream a little less esoteric. Though I do not have the silver bullet that will end poverty, I do know that eliminating the social institutions that force us to keep each other afloat is the best way to draw us further apart. A country that told the world to send them their tired, and their sick, and their hungry has an obligation to give the people who came here for that opportunity a chance to realize the dream they were promised. A country that told them they could turn a dollar into rabbits.

Created By
Sam Goldberg
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