The Illusory, Elusive American Dream

NPR, October 7, 2010

My sister and I were recently comparing notes about the economy. My take was this: You know things are really bad when all of your friends are cutting cable TV and going with Netflix, Hulu or (gasp!) the local library’s DVD collection.

“What’s going to happen to Comcast?” I mused aloud and then paused. At 35, this was the first time I had ever considered the welfare of a company.

Things have really changed.

Of course, it’s not Comcast’s CEOs that I’m thinking about but the people who come to install the boxes and show you how the remote control actually works — people whose jobs are perhaps a little more uncertain now that at least four of my friends have either cut back to basic cable or eliminated the service altogether in the past six months.

I’m thinking too about how clearly the Labor Department’s data show that the Great Recession is not colorblind. It continues to take a heavier toll on black and Latino communities, where unemployment is 16.3 percent and 12 percent, respectively, compared with 9 percent for whites.

Recessions aren’t new to my world.

When a small portion of Americans, including a few of my friends, were enjoying the dot-com nirvana in the 1990s, my family and our larger Latino community in New Jersey was facing NAFTA and the closure of factories. Cycling on and off of unemployment as factories closed and then opened for a few weeks and then finally closed became a difficult, if ordinary, way of life. Those who had citizenship like my parents were among the lucky ones. They had unemployment to draw on.

At the time, I thought my friends and I would escape a similar fate by getting college degrees and office jobs. I didn’t realize that I had adopted this old-school puritan idea that is the mantra of the middle class: If you do X, then Y will happen. If you work hard, you’ll own your home. If you go to college, you’ll get a job. If you pay your taxes, you’ll have a public library open seven days a week.

I didn’t realize what an illusion this was, and judging by how many people are now angry with Obama, many Americans didn’t, either. There is so much that is plainly out of our control (AIG executives, for example) and there is much control that we’ve given away (like regulating those executives) in the hopes that we’d get a piece of the pie in return. The idea that we could be “good girls and boys” and be rewarded with savings and retirement was just that: an idea. In reality, we didn’t vote for people or make demands on those elected officials to actually support the idea.

On those days when I’m feeling optimistic about the economy, I think this recession will inspire more of us to see how what happens to an undocumented immigrant in Ohio or a single mom in Tennessee is connected to what happens to a yuppie in Los Angeles or a waiter in Detroit. In those moments, I’m even hopeful that more of us will start to value investing not just in a safety net for when things get rough but also in a safety network — policies that place priority on the well-being of an undocumented immigrant as much as a yuppie, without the nonsense of anything trickling down.

Judging by the number of people joining the Tea Party and railing against Obama, though, I have little reason to be hopeful. On one of those recent less-than-optimistic days, I canceled my subscription to Netflix and looked online for old episodes of Mad Men. Then I headed to the local library to see if it had DVDs of the show. They were all checked out. I debated adding my name to the wait list but decided to expand my horizons and see a movie I’d only read about. I went home with a copy of 12 Angry Men.

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