Sunday Essay: Reweaving the American Dream

2014-03-09T07:30:00Z Sunday Essay: Reweaving the American DreamRandy Wilson Daily Sun Editor Arizona Daily Sun
March 09, 2014 7:30 am  • 

It’s never too late, of course, to dream.

But we parents of Millennials worry that some of our children won’t even start.

This is the generation, ages 18 to 33, that has grown up more digitally than interpersonally connected. They have put off marriage and having kids later than most any generation before them. And a major poll shows a majority joining neither churches nor political parties while being more distrustful than any other age group in America.

I thought about these young people this past week as NAU’s Philosophy in the Public Interest program asked the Hot Topic question: “What happened to the American Dream?” In a college town like Flagstaff, with 19,000 Millennials on the Mountain Campus alone, it’s an issue that should be top of mind year-round.

Those of us in the next two age cohorts — Gen Xers (34-49) and Baby Boomers (50-68) — have a right to still dream, too. But it’s fair to say that most of us have had to temper our youthful idealism with pragmatism. We embrace Flagstaff for its beauty and community while suspecting that “poverty with a view” is never going away.

And since the recession, some of that pragmatism has had to give way to a more grim realism as automation and globalization make most workers less secure about their future. Columnist David Brooks calls them — us — the “precariat” for polls that show a less confident and less mobile America.

For Millennials, that loss of confidence in traditional institutions would seem justified. It is the first generation with higher levels of student loan debt, unemployment and poverty than the two prior generations at the same age, while having lower levels of wealth and personal income. Idealists who want to save the world from hunger, disease and ignorance have a hard time getting started when their monthly loan repayments are nearly as high as the rent.

HIGHER ED FALTERING

Economists, however, discount some of the hand-wringing over low mobility for the poor, pointing out that it has always been relatively low in the U.S. and hasn’t changed much in recent years.

But in higher education, often seen as the great leveler for students from all income levels, the tide seems to be going out, not in. Following massive disinvestment by the states, many public universities have doubled tuition. College costs for the poorest fifth of families have gone from 42 percent of income in 1971 to 114 percent in 2011, while the top fifth has seen an increase from 6 percent to just 9 percent.

For those students from the poorest 25 percent of all families, only 1 in 10 will graduate from college by the age of 24 and only 1 in 5 from the second lowest quartile. And those who do graduate often face suffocating debt.

INEQUALITY HITS HOME

How does this inequality play out in Flagstaff? Local officials see a low median household income and a homeownership rate of 47 percent versus 65 percent statewide and discount them because of all the college students who aren’t candidates to buy houses, anyway.

But dig into the figures by income level and types of household formation and the picture shows a large and growing gap. Non-family households have median incomes of $33,000, while married couple families have incomes of $84,000 — comfortably within the range of being able to afford even Flagstaff’s expensive median-priced house.

There are about 4,300 such families with incomes of at least $84,000 while just 1,000 non-family households earn that much. And it’s that $50,000 median income gap between the two types of households that Millennials, given some of the structural impediments they face starting out, may have a hard time closing. 

But what if we look at actual earnings by individual workers, not households? Out of 19,200 full-time workers in Flagstaff (that rules out college students selling tickets at Snowbowl), 64 percent earn less than $50,000. Even those with a college degree earn on average just $37,000 in Flagstaff (versus $50,000 nationwide), and it’s only those with a graduate degree who break the $50,000 average earnings level in Flagstaff ($54,342).

DARE TO DREAM

It was President Obama who upped the volume in the debate over income inequality and the wealth gap in his State of the Union address. His dreams, like mine, are now being transferred to the next generation. For us, it’s about building an economic, educational and political scaffolding on which our children can stand and dare to dream. No generation of young people deserves to start out as pragmatists, and Millennials are no exception.

Randy Wilson is editor of the Daily Sun. For excerpts from a transcript of the “American Dream” Hot Topics Cafe, see this story online at azdailysun.com.

Copyright 2015 Arizona Daily Sun. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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