What's Happening to the American Dream?

July 23, 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. 


 

To the Teacher:

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.

 


Student Reading 1:

The Widening Wealth Gap

"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 what social and economic critics see as growing wealth inequality in American life. "The people in the middle are stagnating in terms of their earnings, the people at the top are gaining ground and the people at the bottom are losing," said Robert Frank, an economics professor at Cornell. ( New York Times, 12/14/03) Nobel laureate and University of Chicago economics professor James Heckman, said, "The big finding in recent years is that the notion of America being a highly mobile society isn't as true as it used to be." ( Business Week, 12/1/03)

"...The gap between rich and poor has widened under the Bush administration, through recession, jobless recovery and grotesquely lopsided tax cuts," wrote political columnist and author George Packer. "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." ( Mother Jones, November/December 2003) And American executives are now paid 475 times more than factory workers. (NOW with Bill Moyers, 10/24/03)

Some other facts and figures for 2002 (the last year for which this information is available from the Census Bureau):
 

1. Poverty

The number of poor people increased by 1.7 million to 34.6 million. This is the second consecutive year for an increase in U.S. poverty. The official poverty line is an income of $18,392 for a family of four. By this standard there were 3 million more poor people in 2002 than in 2000. And those who were poor became even poorer. The average amount by which the incomes of those who are poor fell below the poverty line was greater than in any other year according to records going back to 1979. The number of poor children rose by 400,000.

At the same time, the safety net for the poor has become weaker. Unemployment benefits and child care assistance have been reduced.
 

2. Middle Income Families

The median household earned income fell $500 to $42,409.
 

3. Health Insurance

The number of Americans without health insurance increased by 5.7% to 43.6 million people.

(Facts for #1, #2, and #3 above come from the Census Bureau as reported by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, www.cbpp.org.)
 

4. Low Pay and Few Benefits

More than 30 million Americans, or 1 in 4 workers, earn less than $8.70 per hour in jobs that provide few benefits, such as health care insurance, sick pay, disability pay, paid vacation, and retirement benefits. (Beth Shulman, author of The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans, on NOW with Bill Moyers, 10/24/03)

"It is astonishing," said Bill Moyers on NOW, "but there are tens of millions of fully employed people working even longer hours than ever, who, when inflation is taken into account, earn less money than they received 30 years ago."
 

5. Savings and Debt

Thirty years ago the average American family saved about 11% of its income. Today it saves nothing. In fact, the debts owed by the average family today are three times greater than they were in the early 1970s. Last year there were 1.6 million personal bankruptcies, an all-time high. (Bob Herbert, New York Times, 11/10/03)
 

6. "Food Insecurity"

Millions of Americans suffer from "food insecurity," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which defines food insecurity as "limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways." The USDA reports a 10.7% rise in food insecurity in 2002 and adds that only 36.5% of those suffering from it fall below the official poverty line. The U.S. Conference of Mayors reports that during the past year hunger and homelessness continued to rise in major American cities. There has been an increase of 17% in requests for emergency food assistance. In New York City the number of homeless people is at an all-time high, with 39,000 people—17,000 of them children—seeking shelter every night.
 

7. Social Health

A recent study shows that in each of the following areas the social health of the U.S. has worsened—children in poverty, average weekly earnings, affordable housing, health insurance coverage, food stamp coverage, the gap between rich and poor.

These 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's going on with the basic fabric of our society," says Dr. Marc Miringoff, director of Institute for Innovation in Social Policy at the Fordham University Graduate Center (quoted in Bob Herbert, New York Times, 12/19/03)
 

8. Inequality

The United States ranks last in terms of income equality among industrialized nations, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (However, to put this statement in a global perspective, the OECD also reports that in 1993 the poorest 10% of the U.S. population was still wealthier than people in two-thirds of the rest of the world.)

The economist Jeff Madrick wrote that the U.S.has become much more unequal over the last thirty years. As proof he pointed to the large number of Americans without health insurance, the growth in educational inequality and child poverty, rates of infant mortality that are near the bottom among advanced nations, the stagnation or fall of wages for most workers, and "rapidly rising costs of education, health care, public transit and drugs [that] have made life much harder for middle-income families." ( The New York Review, 12/18/03)

Does growing inequality in America matter? William Gates, Sr. (father of Microsoft founder Bill Gates) and Chuck Collins, writing in Wealth and Our Commonwealth, think it does. They said, "The essence of the American experiment is our collective rejection of European hereditary aristocracy and grotesque inequalities of wealth....The nation's founders and populace viewed excessive concentrations of wealth as incompatible with the ideals of the new nation." Today's growing inequality, they argue, represents a departure from this heritage.

 


Student Reading 2:

Why the Wealth Gap?

From the Great Depression of the 1930s to the early 1970s, the gap between rich and poor narrowed steadily in this country. Since then, however, this trend has reversed and now inequality grows steadily. Why? Many interconnected factors have contributed. It is difficult to say which are most important. But it is possible to name significant contributing causes. They include:

1. Corporate Globalization

No one is surprised these days to look inside a sneaker and see that it was made in China or to learn that most of the 32 million TV sets sold in the U.S. yearly are made in Mexico or Asia ( New York Times, 12/22/03) or to discover that the order you are making from a catalog is being handled by a clerk in Bangalore, India.

In the past several decades, the U.S. has changed from being a manufacturing economy with giant steel mills, huge automobile complexes and thousands of clothing factories that provided millions of jobs to being a service and information economy powered by new technologies like computers, satellites and fiber optics. In the process, there have been many gains and losses. One significant gain for corporations is that they can set up shop anywhere and sell their products everywhere. But American workers have lost millions of jobs, including high-skilled jobs, to other countries and their low-wage workers. 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.
 

2. Disappearing Unions

The once-powerful U.S. labor federation, the AFL-CIO, and its constituent unions have lost millions of members, largely because of the decline of the heavily unionized manufacturing sector. Today unions represent only 10% of private workers in the U.S.

Being an average union worker means earning 28% more than the average non-union worker and also having substantial benefits like health insurance. But the collective power of unions means even more. "When unions represent a higher proportion of the workforce—when there is greater 'union density'—in a particular industry, unions can raise the overall industry wage rate, including for non-union workers. Even more importantly, when there is greater national union density, unions can exert the political power, to ensure that benefits and pain in the national economy are more equally shared." (Economists Edward Wolff and Jared Bernstein in their article "Inequality and Corporate Power,"available at www.inequality.org.)

The U.S. economy has emerged from a recession and stock prices are up on Wall Street. But the number of jobs has not increased, resulting in "a jobless recovery," a product of increased technological proficiency and the migration of jobs overseas. The official jobless rate of 5.7% does not include workers who have looked for jobs in the past year but have given up because they haven't had any offers, part-time workers who want full-time jobs but can't find them and workers who have settled for jobs that pay significantly less than jobs they once held. Since the Bush presidency began, the U.S. has suffered a net loss of more than two million jobs ( New York Times, 1/10/04). Giant companies like Wal-Mart are able to employ people willing to work in low-paying, non-union wages — and so keep unions out.

Employers have the upper hand against workers who want to organize themselves into unions. According to the AFL-CIO, about 75% of employers fight union organizing drives; 78% of them require workers to attend one-on-one anti-union meetings with managers; 25% illegally fire at least one worker for union activity during an organizing campaign. ( Amnesty Now, winter 2003) Under U.S. labor law, such practices are very difficult to challenge.
 

3. Declining Minimum Wage

The minimum wage in the U.S. is $5.15 per hour. But the minimum wage has remained unchanged since 1997 despite the inflation that in the past seven years has made the $5.15 of 2004 worth 25% less—more like $3.88 in 1997 dollars. But even if one ignores the inflation that has sharply reduced the value of the minimum wage, $5.15 per hour comes to about $10,000 per year, an unlivable wage that forces many Americans to get second jobs or find some other way of getting by.

Low-wage jobs are not just jobs at McDonald's and Burger King. They include, according to author Beth Shulman, "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." Such jobs are not necessarily low-skilled and they are not necessarily jobs for teenagers. They are jobs 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 per hour with few benefits. (Beth Shulman, author of The Betrayal of Work: how Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans , on NOW with Bill Moyers, 10/24/03)
 

4. Benefits for the Rich

The wealthiest Americans have become wealthier. The gap between rich and poor has more than doubled in the last 20 years. The after-tax combined income of the 110 million poorest paid Americans is less than the combined income of the richest 2.8 million Americans. (NOW with Bill Moyers, 10/24/03)

Here are three major reasons:

  • a series of tax cuts during the past three years provided the most benefits for the wealthiest Americans
  • sharp reductions in corporate taxes since 1960 from 22% to 7%
  • a soaring stock market for much of the period since the mid-1990s that has benefited the rich more than others

(Much of the above analysis, except where indicated, is drawn from Edward Wolff and Jared Bernstein's "Inequality and Corporate Power," available on www.inequality.org.)
 

On the American Dream

An article in the December 1, 2003, issue of Business Week entitled "Waking Up from the American Dream" summarized recent research showing the growth of wealth inequality in the U.S. and the decrease in opportunity and social mobility that have been key elements in the American dream. Business Week blamed the 'Wal-Martization' of the economy, the proliferation of low-wage jobs and the loss of jobs that used to usher people into the middle class.

Paul Krugman, a New York Times columnist and an economics professor at Princeton, notes that public policy is being designed "to further entrench the advantages of the haves against the have-nots" and pointed to the Bush administration's elimination of the estate tax, reduced tax rates for corporations and the rich, cut-backs on healthcare for the poor and educational quality, anti-unionism and privatizing of government functions so that low-wage private employees replace well-paid civil workers. Krugman concluded, "Goodbye, Horatio Alger. And goodbye, American Dream." ( The Nation, 1/5/04)

The Declaration of Independence states: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

The men who signed the Declaration did not believe that all men were created equal in ability, but they did believe that all men had equal rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that men formed governments to ensure these equal rights, that therefore a just government's power had to have men's approval. As imperfect human beings, these founders lived with contradictions. The African slaves most of them owned did not have any rights. The government they would create would not have the consent of these slaves or of women, including the founders' own mothers and wives.

The founders well understood that the kings and nobles of Europe were an aristocracy living richly on inherited wealth while great masses of people lived in squalor. They, like many other Americans, also understood that democratic ideals would not co-exist with great concentrations of wealth. Inevitably, the power of money would subvert the power of democracy.

Why? Because great wealth creates great power. That power undercuts democracy's promise that everyone should be treated equally. The rich can and do buy the influence, laws and loopholes they want from legislators and presidents. Not necessarily with envelopes full of money, although they are not unknown, but more often in other ways these days—large contributions to political campaigns, the threat of financial support to opponents, the promise of cushy, well-paid positions after they leave office, favors and freebies of various kinds like trips to exotic places and luxury suites.

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, believed in a "natural aristocracy" based on "virtues and talents." But in his autobiography he warned, "An aristocracy of wealth [is] of more harm and danger than benefit to society."

 


Student Reading 3:

Pros and Cons of the Wealth Gap

Most Americans understand the connections between wealth, power, influence and inequality. But few Americans complained about the Bush administration's recent tax cuts and its elimination of the estate tax that mostly benefit the rich and contribute to growing wealth inequality. And few demand government policies that would promote greater equality. Why? David Brooks, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and a regular columnist for the New York Times , explained on the op-ed page of the Times (12/1/03):

"Americans live in a culture of abundance. They have always had a sense that great opportunities lie just over the horizon, in the next valley, with the next job or the next big thing. None of us is really poor; we're just pre-rich....Many Americans admire the rich. They don't see society as a conflict zone between rich and poor. It's taboo to say in a democratic culture, but do you think a nation that watches Katie Couric in the morning, Tom Hanks in the evening and Michael Jordan on weekends harbors deep animosity toward the affluent?

"....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 that I got, I'm just, I'm just Jenny from the block.' As long as rich people 'stay real,' in Ms. Lopez's formulation, 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 no true neighbors and no free time.

"All of this adds up to a terrain incredibly inhospitable to class-based politics. Every few years a group of millionaire Democratic presidential aspirants pretends to be the people's warriors against the overclass. They look inauthentic, combative rather than unifying. Worst of all, their message is not optimistic.

"They 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 ideal 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."

Conservative economists like Bruce Bartlett, who worked in several Republican administrations, believe the American dream still lives. "There's a great deal of mobility," he said. "People do move up and down the income ladder with great regularity."

To those who point to the diminished American job market, conservatives say "that the counterexample is the European job market, where wages are kept steady and dismissing employees is difficult and where unemployment rates have generally been higher, sometimes much higher, that in the United States in recent decades. It is unclear whether Europeans could tolerate the uncertainty that comes with the American emphasis on constant change." And this is why James Grant, the editor of Grant's Interest Rate Observer , says, "The [NY] Daily News can put Phil Purcell's picture on the front page and his salary and there's not going to be rioting, because people sense that if Morgan Stanley does better, they're going to do better." (Michael Brick in the New York Times, 12/14/03)

The American dream has been the rags-to-riches Horatio Alger story, the story of a 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 and believe such a person deserves whatever money and position he or she attains: Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Jennifer Lopez.

Writes George Packer in the magazine Mother Jones :

"Does it matter that America keeps getting economically more unequal?....So what if a country famous for its creed of human equality has the most lopsided distribution of wealth in the developed world? We allow economic inequality because we believe in social equality, the basic fairness of the race. It's this last consideration that makes it so hard to get attention for the problem of inequality. As long as unequal results are considered legitimate, anything done to mitigate them or even to raise them for discussion can be dismissed as envy, or class warfare, or economic quackery.

"It's not as if there are no remedies. A few months ago Ray Boshara of the New America Foundation and Washington University professor Michael Sherraden proposed the creation of a $6,000 investment fund for every child born in the United States; with the right portfolio it would yield 7 percent annually, eventually paying 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. Other ideas (a luxury tax; a major increase in scholarship money for middle- and lower-income students; a tax on the wealthy that automatically increases when inequality gets worse) can be found on the valuable website, www.inequality.org.

"....it's in this territory of increasing equal opportunity, not forcing equal results, that the case against the status quo has to be made. The American instinct against leveling is matched by an American instinct for fairness. When results grow as vastly disparate as they have in recent years, equal opportunity becomes an empty promise, a nice phrase without substance. And the race is becoming less fair by the day, as the administration and the Republican Congress seek to remove any mechanism that might give working people a chance to prosper.

"To finance the administration's tax cuts, the House majority's main spending bill for the coming year cuts funds for economic development, for housing, for child care, for transportation, for job training. The Republican leadership has broken its own promise to increase education spending next year by $3 billion, lowering the amount to $2.3 billion. The list goes on, even to the minor decisions that the administration hopes won't be noticed. Earlier this year, after Bush slashed taxes on the richest Americans, his Department of Education issued a regulation cutting the amount that college students and their families can deduct from state and local taxes under the financial-aid eligibility formula. It's the kind of detail that reveals a whole philosophy of governing.

"What Bush and Congress are doing only accelerates, by conscious decision, the long-term demise of equal opportunity. One by one over the past three decades, 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, and I would maintain that most Americans are aware that we are tolerating a chronic, low-grade national scandal. Ultimately it threatens the basic sense of justice and unity on which democracy depends. The coming presidential campaign could at least provide this public service: to rehabilitate an antique, indispensable and now practically discarded word." ( Mother Jones, November/December 2003)

Beth Shulman pointed out that 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...." (NOW with Bill Moyers, 10/24/03)


Some Suggested Classroom Activities

DISCUSSION

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

Reading 1

1. What do you think are the most significant examples of wealth inequality in the U.S.? Why?

2. The reading includes a number of statistics. Behind them, of course, are real individual human beings. Consider a statistic that you think is particularly significant. What real life meanings might this statistic reflect?

3. What "ideals of the new nation" do you think were very important to the nation's founders? Why?

4. Which of these ideals would they have thought incompatible with "excessive concentration of wealth"? Why?
 

Reading 2

1. What are some of the major causes of wealth inequality in the U.S.?

2. What is "union density" and how does it affect workers' pay?

3. Why do you think most employers fight efforts to organize workers?

4. What does Business Week mean by the "Wal-Martization" of the economy?

5. Jefferson warned about "an aristocracy of wealth." What do you think he meant by this phrase? Why might he have thought it harmful and dangerous?
 

Reading 3

1. What are Brooks' major points about why Americans don't demand greater income equality?

2. What is the difference between social inequality and income inequality? Do you agree that Americans resent the former but not the latter? Why?

3. What are Packer's major points about why income inequality matters?

4. According to Packer, what has the U.S. government been doing that reduces equal opportunity and income equality?
 

DEVELOPING A VISION OF 'THE GENERAL WELFARE'

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."

Th is 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