Easier-reading version of What's Happening to the American Dream?

November 7, 2011

Readings and activities to help high school students better understand the growing gap between rich and poor and consider the issue in light of this year's presidential election.

The strength of the economy always affects the quality of the lives of Americans. Special concerns today are the limited job recovery from a recession, the increasing flight of jobs to low-wage countries, and the growing wealth inequality in the U.S.
The readings and accompanying activities that follow aim to help students understand these issues as well as to consider what meanings we should give to the Constitution's call for the promotion of the "general welfare" and to what has long been called the American dream. (Note: For more complete references for quotes and information, please, see the full-length version of these lessons on this website at What's Happening to the American Dream?)


Student Reading 1:

The Wealth Gap and Why It's Getting Bigger

"I don't see anything getting any better around here," said Roger Giboney, 59. He once earned $19 an hour plus benefits in a union job moving and fixing heavy machine equipment in a small Missouri town. "It might be getting better for the rich people. They might be trying to make like they are helping us. But round here, seems nobody has a chance left."

In April 2002, Giboney lost his job when the factory he had worked in for 38 years shut down for good. Four months later he found a job unloading trucks and moving merchandise. But the new job pays $8 without benefits. He and his wife Joyce were forced to tap the $40,000 in savings they had gradually put away. Now, they said, their $40,000 was practically gone.

Giboney's son, Rick, 31, also lost his job when the wire factory he worked in closed. He and his wife Sherry are struggling to support themselves and their three children on her $9-an-hour position as a McDonald's manager and his $200 per week unemployment check.

The Giboney family's problems mirror those of tens of thousands of others in the Midwest, which suffered a greater increase in poverty and reduced income last year than any other area. In Missouri alone 77,000 jobs disappeared.

(The Giboneys' story was featured in the New York Times, 9/27/03)

Jobs have disappeared in New York City just as they have in small Missouri towns. In a Brooklyn neighborhood at a day-labor center, Dave Rick, 39, was not celebrating a Christmas bonus. He was laid off from a printing company just before Thanksgiving. "It doesn't feel good," he said. "After eight years, I got three months' severance. I'm sweating my mortgage, trying to keep the fear at low tide." ( New York Times, 12/14/03)

But on Wall Street in December 2003, year-end bonuses made headlines. The biggest reported bonus went to Philip Purcell, chairman and chief executive of Morgan Stanley, the investment banking firm, who took in $12 million. In New York there were reports of fancy restaurants with waiting lines and President Bush said, "This economy of ours is strong and it is getting stronger."

The plight of Dave Rick and the Giboneys versus that of Philip Purcell and his big bonus reflect a growing wealth inequality in American life. Statistics like the following for 2002 show that the people at the top are getting richer, the people in the middle are stagnating and the people at the bottom are getting poorer.

1. Poor people. The number of poor people increased to 34.6 million. The average amount that poor people's incomes fell below the poverty line was greater than in any other year on record. The official poverty line is an income of $18,392 for a family of four. Another blow to poor people is that unemployment benefits and child care help have been reduced.

2. Poor and middle income people. More than 30 million Americans, or 1 in 4 workers, earn less than $8.70 an hour. More than 43 million have no health insurance. Many have no sick pay, no disability pay, no vacation pay and no retirement benefits. Thirty years ago the average American family saved about 11% of its income. Today it saves nothing. In 2002 personal bankruptcies were at an all-time high. (Census Bureau, as reported by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and NOW with Bill Moyers, 10/24/03)

3. Rich people. "...the level of inequality in America today is staggering. The top 1 percent now own 38 percent of the nation's wealth, while the bottom 40 percent own 1 percent. In other words, the richest 3 million Americans put together are nearly 40 times richer than 113 million of the rest of us." (George Packer, Mother Jones, November/December 2003)

4. Social health. Hunger and homelessness are rising in major American cities, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. In the following areas the social health of the U.S. has worsened—poor children, average weekly earnings, affordable housing, health insurance coverage, food stamp coverage, the gap between the rich and the poor. The numbers "tell us an untold story, not just about the poor but the working poor and the middle class as well. It's shocking to see such a sharp decline in just one year. It tells us that something going on with the basic fabric of our society." (Dr. Marc Miringoff, director of Institute for Innovation in Social Policy at the Fordham University Graduate Center.)

What is going on? Why has wealth inequality been growing steadily? Here are some reasons.

You look in your sneaker and see that it was made in China. You buy a new TV and learn that it comes from Mexico. The U.S. used to have giant steel mills, huge automobile complexes and thousands of clothing factories. They provided millions of jobs in our manufacturing economy. The U.S. has changed. Many of these manufacturing jobs are gone. One reason for this change is that today, corporations can set up shop anywhere and sell their products everywhere. And so American workers have lost millions of jobs, including high-skilled jobs, to other countries where workers are paid less. Many U.S. manufacturing jobs have also been lost as a result of new technology: It now takes fewer workers to produce the same goods.

When corporations go to other countries, taking jobs with them, American unions decline. The big federation of U.S. unions, known as the AFL-CIO, has lost millions of members. Today only 10% of private workers in the U.S. belong to unions. The average union worker earns 28% more than the average non-union worker and also has better benefits (like health care and vacation pay). The collective power of unions once meant the political clout to raise pay and benefits for everyone. The decline of unions and jobs has resulted in lots of people looking for work and being forced to accept less pay and maybe part-time jobs. Giant companies like Wal-Mart can hire people for low non-union wages and keep unions out.

Low-wage jobs are not just the ones at McDonald's and Burger King. They include: "nurse's aides, security guards, child care workers and educational assistants, maids and porters, 1-800 call-center workers, bank tellers, data-entry keyers, cooks, food preparation workers, waiters and waitresses, cashiers and pharmacy assistants, poultry, fish and meat processors, laundry and dry cleaning operators and agricultural workers." These jobs are not necessarily low-skilled, and they are not necessarily jobs for teenagers. They are held mostly by those who are "white, female, high school educated and with family responsibilities." And they are usually dead-end jobs. But they are the jobs of 30 million Americans earning less than $8.70 an hour with few benefits. (NOW with Bill Moyers, 10/24/03)

The rich are getting richer. Three major reasons: 1) a series of tax cuts during the past three years that have benefited the rich most; 2) sharp reductions in corporate taxes; 3) a rising stock market since the mid-1990s that has benefited the rich more than others.


Student Reading 2:

Pros and Cons on the Wealth Gap

Most Americans understand that wealth=power=influence=inequality. They understand that the rich can and do buy influence, laws and loopholes they want from legislators and presidents. But few Americans complained about the Bush administration's plans to eliminate the estate tax or its recent tax cuts. Both mostly benefit the rich. Few demand programs that would promote greater equality. Why?

Writer David Brooks put forward his explanation in the New York Times (12/1/03). Americans, he wrote, "have always had a sense that great opportunities lie just over the horizon...with the next job or the next big thing....Many Americans admire the rich. They don't see society as a conflict zone between rich and poor....do you think a nation that watches Katie Couric in the morning, Tom Hanks in the evening and Michael Jordan on weekends hates the rich?

"....You go to a town where the factories have closed and people who once earned $14 an hour now work for $8 an hour. They've taken their hits. But odds are you will find their faith in hard work and self-reliance undiminished.... Americans resent social inequality more than income inequality. As the sociologist Jennifer Lopez has observed: 'Don't be fooled by the rocks I got, I'm just, I'm just Jenny from the block.' As long as rich people 'stay real'...they are admired.

"Americans do not see society as a layer cake, with the rich on top, the middle class beneath them and the working class and underclass at the bottom. They see society as a high school cafeteria with their community at one table and other communities at other tables. They are pretty sure that their community is the nicest and filled with the best people, and they have a vague pity for all those poor souls who live in New York City or California and have a lot of money but not true neighbors and no free time."

What all this adds up to, David Brooks believes, is that Americans don't like "class-based politics. Every few years a group of millionaire Democratic presidential aspirants pretends to be the people's warriors against the overclass." But they look phony. Their message isn't optimistic.

Brooks says these politicians "haven't learned what Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt and even Bill Clinton knew: that you can run against rich people but only those who have betrayed the idea of fair competition. You have to be more hopeful and growth-oriented than your opponent, and you cannot imply that we are a nation tragically and permanently divided by income. In the gospel of America, there are no permanent conflicts."

The American dream celebrates the person who rises to fame and fortune because of the freedom and equality of opportunity America offers. Americans salute the self-made individual who works hard, takes risks and overcomes obstacles. They believe such a person deserves whatever money and position he or she gets: Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Jennifer Lopez.

Writer George Packer has a very different opinion from that of Michael Brooks. He is troubled by the fact that our country, which is "famous for its creed of human equality, has the most lopsided distribution of wealth in the developed world." He suggests some remedies for the problem — for example, creating a $6,000 investment fund for every child born in the U.S. If this amount of money earned 7% interest over a period of years, it could eventually pay "for higher education or a first home or a start-up business....It would give poorer families access to what they most acutely lack, lifelong assets."

Packer has other ideas, including a luxury tax on the rich; more scholarship money for middle and lower-income students; a tax on the wealthy that increases when inequality gets worse. Packer thinks that what needs to be done is to give people more equal opportunities, not to force equal results. He believes that when the income gap grows, "equal opportunity becomes an empty promise."

Packer notes that the Bush administration has worked to "cut funds for economic development, for housing, for child care, for transportation, for job training" and for education. So "all the means that traditionally worked to level the playing field have grown weak or disappeared: the decent public school, the labor union, the progressive income tax, the federal social program such as the GI Bill, Head Start, job training...The disappearance of equality can't be entirely proved with charts and graphs, but people know it when they don't see it." ( Mother Jones, November/December 2003)

Can democracy flourish and co-exist with great concentrations of wealth? The founders of the U.S. didn't think so. They understood that in Europe kings and nobles lived on inherited money while most other people were poor. And so Thomas Jefferson wrote in his autobiography, "An aristocracy of wealth [is] of more harm and danger than benefit to society."

One important thing to remember about the economy: If we don't like it, we can change it. The American economy is not "a force of nature....The reality is that our economic world is the result of our creation, not natural law, and we have the ability to make choices," said Beth Shulman, author of "The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans" (NOW with Bill Moyers, 10/24/03)


Suggested Classroom Activities


You might begin a discussion of each reading by asking for student questions about it. Is each question clear? answerable? If other students can't answer a student question, where might an answer be found?

Reading 1

1. What is an important example of wealth inequality in the U.S.?

2. The reading includes a number of statistics. It is important to remember that behind each statistic are real individual human beings. What do you think is an important statistic? What real life stories might this statistic reflect?

3. Why do corporations move their businesses to other countries?

4. Why are unions in the U.S. becoming weaker?

5. Why are there so many low-wage jobs?

Reading 2

1. Do you think Brooks is right about Americans admiring the rich? Why?

2. Why does Packer think that income inequality is important?

3. What do you think of any one of his ideas for reducing this inequality? Explain


High school students are often optimistic about what is possible for themselves and others. So helping them create a vision based on the preamble to the Constitution and using that vision as a basis for activities to promote it can be both appealing and educational.

"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." —Preamble to the Constitution

1. Begin by discussing with students the fact that the Constitution is a living document. For while it is very specific about certain things—for example, the number of senators each state shall have and the length of a president's term of office—it leaves other matters open to interpretation. Americans, in general, and the Supreme Court, in particular, are constantly interpreting and reinterpreting the Constitution and often disagreeing with one another. Supporters and opponents of capital punishment, for example, disagree about meanings we should give to "Justice." Given all this, what meanings should we give to the preamble's call for promoting "the general welfare"?

2. Have students consider closely the phrase "promote the general welfare." For the better part of a century, "the general welfare" did not include freedom for slaves. For more than a century it did not include laws preventing child labor. And people who are still alive can remember a time when it did not include Social Security.

Question: What, specifically, should the U.S. government do today to "promote the general welfare"? Guarantee that no American goes hungry? that every American is able and willing to work have a job? Exactly what?

Begin the conversation with dialogues in pairs, a simple technique to get everyone engaged in conversation at the same time. It is a way to brainstorm, exchange first thoughts, begin discussion of a compelling question.

Students pair up in twos facing each other and bring their own backgrounds to the topic. Write the question above on the chalkboard and then ask one person in each pair to speak for one to two minutes in response to it. Then the other partner speaks for one to two minutes, thus reversing the roles of listener and speaker. Remind students that when they are in the role of listener, their goal is to focus their complete attention on the speaker and listen in interested silence. After this initial exchange, invite students to talk in pairs for another two or three minutes about their reactions to what each has said.

What are students' responses to the question? Have students volunteer their ideas and record them on the chalkboard without comment. Then consider with the class such questions as these:

  • How much agreement is there on answers to the question?
  • Where do we disagree?
  • Can differences be reconciled? Work for a list of items on which there is class consensus and eliminate those for which there is no consensus.
  • Why is each consensus item important?
  • What difficulties might stand in the way of Congressional action to make each item as real as Social Security? For example, how will the item be financed? At what cost? To whom?
  • This might be an opportunity to consider the financing of programs already in existence that "promote the general welfare." How is unemployment insurance financed? Social Security? Medicare? Head Start?
  • How much popular support do you think there would be for each item? Why?

3. To get an informal answer to the last question, have students:

a) prepare a set of polling questions
b) conduct an informal poll with 10 family members and friends
c) share the results in class

a. Preparing Poll Questions

Through preparing a poll, students can learn something about what people think as well as the problems of surveys. Students need to decide exactly what they want to find out and then word any question or questions so that they elicit the desired information fairly. For example, there are significant differences among the following questions:

  • Do you support a law to guarantee a job for every adult American who is able and willing to work?
  • Do you think every adult American should be guaranteed a job no matter what it costs the government?
  • Is it a good idea to guarantee every adult American a job if some people would take advantage and not work hard?

The poll might also include a question or questions that would ask respondents to rate items in order of their importance. Students might prepare a poll in small groups, then share it with the class, which can decide on the best or decide to meld two or more draft polls into one final poll that can be duplicated in the quantities needed.

b. Conducting the Poll

By a designated time students should complete their polling activities, summarize the results and submit them for a class summary.

c. Analyzing the Poll

In analyzing the poll and creating the class summary, students should be made aware that their poll has been an informal one, that it does not represent what professional pollsters would regard as an accurate sample and that there are dangers in generalizations based on a limited amount of evidence. Polling a relatively small number of family members and friends does not make one an authority on how the public at large view the "general welfare." Nevertheless, at least students should now have a wider range of views than just those represented in the class.

4. To advance thinking, ideas and discussion about the "general welfare," assign several students to examine the websites of each of the presidential candidates. What proposals does the candidate offer in this area? How does he/she plan to finance them? Ask students to take notes, and later meet in small groups with others who have studied the same site, then share their findings with the class.

Bush: georgewbush.com
Clark: americansforclark.com
Dean: deanforamerica.com
Edwards: johnedwards2004.com
Gephardt: dickgephardt2004.com
Kerry: johnkerry.com
Kucinich: kucinich.us
Lieberman: joe2004.com
Moseley-Braun: carolforpresident.com
Sharpton: al2004.org
Green Party: gp.org
Libertarian Party: lp.org

5. Conduct a small-group and then a full-class discussion of the following question:

Should we make any changes in our consensus list of items to "promote the general welfare" as a result of our poll results, our study of candidates' websites and our further discussions? Once again, work for consensus on any changes and eliminate items for which there is no consensus.

6. Additional possible activities

a. Students might examine their attitudes toward social action and the possibility of creating a better country. Have students consider the following remarks by Martin Luther King:

"It is interesting to notice that the extreme pessimist and the extreme optimist agree on at least one point. They both feel that we must sit down and do nothing in the area of race relations. The extreme optimist says do nothing because integration is inevitable. The extreme pessimist says do nothing because integration is impossible."

Do students see themselves as "extreme optimists"? "extreme pessimists"? If neither, how would they describe themselves?

Now that they have created a vision to "promote the general welfare," can they create an image of a person who would be an effective social activist—one who has ideas and hope for worthwhile change but who also is aware of the challenges and difficulties of promoting such change? What would this person be like? What would he or she do?

b. Students might conduct a letter-writing or e-mail campaign to candidates commenting on their proposals for "the general welfare" and the student's proposals.

c. Students might volunteer to work at the local campaign headquarters of a candidate whose proposals are favored by a student.

d. Students might organize a school-wide and, if possible, inter-school program on 1) the vision developed by the class and 2) the proposals of the candidates.

e. Students might prepared a newspaper or magazine for school-wide distribution and perhaps to other schools as well on the vision they have developed, with features also on the pros and cons of candidate proposals.

f. Students might form a school-wide club to promote their class vision of "promoting the general welfare."

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org