If the “American dream” is anything it is a dream of upward mobility: the dream of getting ahead, climbing the ladder, leapfrogging from one class to another in a “land of opportunity”—all if you’re willing to work for it. Too often, fantastic “rags to riches” tales push aside the more mundane stories of generational accomplishments over time, where parents who finish high school make it possible for their children to go to college, achieving some security within the middle class. We shouldn’t discount the unique joy that comes from simply seeing your grandchildren not have to live hand-to-mouth as you once did.
It is certainly true that this dream easily slides towards idolatry. It can become a nightmare of crass materialism and selfish ambition. But we shouldn’t confuse idolatrous perversions with more humble aspirations of families to simply enjoy a mode of economic security that is conducive with flourishing. Those who are passionate advocates of the poor are often, oddly, knee-jerk critics of the American dream and aspirations to be middle class. How odd. It reminds me of the lyrics of an Everclear song: “I hate those people who love to tell you / money is the root of all that kills. / They have never been poor, / they have never had the joy of a welfare Christmas.” The God who cares about the poor must also be a God who celebrates economic flourishing and stability as features of shalom.
But this American dream of upward mobility and economic stability is shriveling, or at least contracting—subject to a new sort of segregation (noted, for example, in Charles Murray’s important 2012 book, Coming Apart). This development has received new attention because of a groundbreaking study of upward mobility by economists at Harvard and Berkeley. The Equality of Opportunity Project tracked the upward mobility of children born in 1980-81, looking at their income and economic security when they reached 30. What emerged from their study was a very stark map of the United States, indicating a regionalization of upward mobility. In the southeastern U.S., for example, mobility is very low—there the so-called “American dream” is mostly a pipedream. And those regions that do foster upward mobility do not track with our most recent habit of carving up the country into “red” states and “blue” states.
What I found most intriguing was the early press coverage of the study, most notably in the New York Times. As if simply struck by the stark infographic, the Times headline announced that “Location Matters.” But, of course, it’s not geography that is an indicator here. Nor was mobility predictable on the basis of local economies or tax policies in different regions. What the Times‘ lazy headline failed to ask was: What are the features of these locations that correlate with upward mobility? Since liberals find it so hard to talk about family values, it shouldn’t surprise us that they buried the lede: namely, that one of the most powerful correlates with upward mobility is stability of family structure, including the presence of two-parent families, coupled with a strong presence of religious communities (which no doubt explains why Salt Lake City, UT tops the list).
A healthy, flourishing society depends on structures and institutions beyond the state. Even the economic life of a nation cannot be adequately (or justly) fostered by just a couple of “spheres” (as Abraham Kuyper called them) like the market and/or government. Societal health requires a robust, thriving civil society, with all kinds of “little platoons” working creatively and in common, without being managed by the apparatus of government or constantly seeking the permission of the state.
Opportunity, for example, requires the foundation of a home and family that provide security, support, and an education in virtue, which in turn enable children to achieve success in school. This then requires schools that are willing and able to continue to not only equip students with requisite knowledge for the workplace but also continue to form them as virtuous citizens—not something that our “public” educational systems have excelled at, which is why religious schools actually contribute more to the public good.
In short, if our society wants to foster upward mobility and economic stability—the good features of the American dream—then we need to call into question the dogmas of secularist progressivism. (Which is precisely why President Obama’s prescriptions to address poverty are so woefully inadequate.)
There remains one more element. As the sociologist Robert Putnam has recently observed, echoing Charles Murray, we also need to recover a sense of the common good. In his requiem for the American dream, Putnam observes that “the deepest root” of the problem “is our radically shriveled sense of ‘we.’” And what our secular age might have to realize is that it is religious communities that foster such faith in common life.