A Dream? A Lie? Or Something Worse?

Given what I've been writing for the past few years about upward mobility and the state of “the American Dream,” it doesn't come as a surprise to me that downwardmobility is the trend that seems likely to dominate the next decade — especially if Washington continues its current trend.

Nearly one in three Americans who grew up middle-class has slipped down the income ladder as an adult, according to a new report by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Downward mobility is most common among middle-class people who are divorced or separated from their spouses, did not attend college, scored poorly on standardized tests, or used hard drugs, the report says.

A middle-class upbringing does not guarantee the same status over the course of a lifetime, the report says.

The study focused on people who were middle-class teenagers in 1979 and who were between 39 and 44 years old in 2004 and 2006. It defines people as middle-class if they fall between the 30th and 70th percentiles in income distribution, which for a family of four is between $32,900 and $64,000 a year in 2010 dollars.

It doesn't surprise me, but as a parent it troubles me deeply. This is something I wish policymakers could somehow understand. Like a lot Americans, I worry a lot more about unemployment than the deficit. It's not the impact of the federal deficit on their future that worries me. It's the impact of an unemployment crisis with no end in sight.

It's this that makes me look at my children and then lie awake at night worrying that one day they will wonder why we lied to them.

We don't mean to lie to them. We're only telling them what our parents told us — that if we were willing to study and work hard, we could raise ourselves up from the good start they worked to give to us, do better than our parents did, and give our own children an even better start than we got. It was “the American Dream,” as told to us by our parents.

The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, also too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in whicheach man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

We didn't intend to lie. Indeed, it wasn't always a lie, but somewhere along the way — during my own lifetime — it became a lie. And what keeps me awake a night is the thought that it might stay a lie.

Our eight-year-old son started third grade this year. He's a bright kid, and as such his head is full ideas about what will be possible for him to do when he grows up. They are unlimited in scope. Some days he wants to run his own business. (Whatkind of business? Who knows? It depends on the day.) Other days he wants to be a scientist and/or inventor.

Given the right environment and encouragement, I've no doubt he can be any of those things. It's too early to tell what our three-year-old son will want to be, or where his interests and abilities will take him, but as parents we've worked to make sure they have everything we can give them to help them go as far as their capabilities will take them, just as our parents did for us.

In fact, because of our parents' efforts, our children have the advantage of having college educated parents, because our parents stressed to us the important of getting a college education. Each pair of grandparents understood it's importance from a different angle. My husband's parents emigrated to the U.S. from Poland in the 1950s, went to college, earned degrees in engineering, and became part of the American middle-class. My parents understood its importance from another perspective.

Like some middle class kids in my generation, education was a high priority. In my house it was emphasized as the doorway to upward mobility. (The idea of learning for learning's sake was something I discovered later.) If I wanted a “good job,” I'd better at least get an undergraduate degree. It wasn't a question of if I'd go to college, but where, as far as my parents were concerned.

“Where you'll go,” I recall my dad saying, “I don't know. But you're going to somebody's university.” My dad's desire for me to go to college was probably due in part to his never having been. The son of sharecroppers, he left the far via the draft, and never looked back. Despite his lack of a college degree (he did earn technical school degree, as I recall), my dad managed to find a “good job” and make a “good living” to provide for his family. He believed getting a college education would help me do the same and do better.

My dad did well despite not going to college, and I believe I've benefited immensely because of the college education he helped me get. I doubt I'd be doing the kind of work I'm doing without it. But in the current economy, stories like my dad's and mine may be fewer and far between.

This weekend our eldest son asked me and where (not if) I thought he might go. Again, I told him that there could be many places he might go, depending on what he wants, and that he was smart enough that if he did well in school, it was possible he could do anything. Last night he told me he might go to law school and become a lawyer. It was an offhand comment on his part, made in response to something I'd said, but I took the opportunity to tell him that he could do just that, if he really wanted it and worked for it.

I'm just doing what my Dad did for me, in his own way. I'll never forget the weekend he took the whole family to see the daughter of a close family friends graduate from medical school. It was a 2.5 hour drive both ways, during the summer. I didn't give much thought to why he wanted us to go, my father stopped as we stepped from the air-conditioned auditorium into the summer heat and told us why.

“I wanted you to see this,” he said, “because I wanted you to know that this is possible for you too. This or whatever you want to do, if you're willing to work hard for it. You can do it.”

He spoke with the passion of a man who didn't get much education beyond his high school diploma, because it wasn't available to him. (Later, we would watch him graduate from a certificate program at a local technical college, earning a certificate that led to a salary.) He spoke as man who grew up behind a mule, sharecropping in south Georgia, until military service took him away from that, and who had worked hard to achieve a middle class status for his family.

My father spoke with the passion of a black man who grew up with limited possibilities, and yet was able to place so many more possibilities within children's reach because it was possible even for himself from sharecropper to homeowner, because there were still good jobs available to less educated workers. My family was one of those for home a good job with livable wages and good benefits opened the door to upward mobility, and enabled my parents to educate their children, giving us a chance to do better economically.

Thus, my parents could stand in the heat of the same Georgia summer son under which they'd plowed fields and picked cotton when they were our ages, and tell us how much more was possible for us. Now, I tell my sons that all sorts of possibilities are open to them. This report makes me wonder if those opportunities will be open to them, or even still exist.

Overall, African American men have a particularly hard time clinging to middle-class status. Thirty-eight percent of black men who grew up middle-class are downwardly mobile, nearly double the rate of white men, the report says. Hispanic men are slightly more likely than white males to fall down the economic ladder, but the difference was not statistically significant.

Among African Americans and Hispanics, men are more likely to slip than women, although the reverse is true among whites.

The racial gap in mobility has perplexed researchers at Pew since a 2007 report that said nearly half of African Americans born to middle-income parents in the late 1960s plunged into poverty or near-poverty as adults. That report underscored the feeble grip many African Americans had on middle-class life, prompting researchers to probe deeper, said Erin Currier, project manager of Pews Economic Mobility Project.

As a father myself now, I know that I tell my sons not only of their possibilities, but of my hopes and dreams for them. As I reflect on the state of the economy and the likelihood that it will take a long time to recover from it, if we recover at all, and the new trend of downward mobility, I wonder if someday all of these things will conspire to make us liars in our sons' eyes someday. I wonder if all we've done and will do to prepare them will turn out not to have mattered.

And yet, the dream didn't become a lie. It was turned into a lie, in just a few decades.

One major pull on the working man was the decline of unions and other labor protections, said Bill Rodgers, a former chief economist for the Labor Department, now a professor at Rutgers University.

Because of deals struck through collective bargaining, union workers have traditionally earned 15% to 20% more than their non-union counterparts, Rodgers said.

But union membership has declined rapidly over the past 30 years. In 1983, union workers made up about 20% of the workforce. In 2010, they represented less than 12%.

“The erosion of collective bargaining is a key factor to explain why low-wage workers and middle income workers have seen their wages not stay up with inflation,” Rodgers said.

Without collective bargaining pushing up wages, especially for blue-collar work — average incomes have stagnated.

And I fear for our children's' future if it remains a lie.

There is unemployment, a brief and relatively routine transitional state that results from the rise and fall of companies in any economy, and there is unemployment chronic, all-consuming. The former is a necessary lubricant in any engine of economic growth. The latter is a pestilence that slowly eats away at people, families, and, if it spreads widely enough, the fabric of society. Indeed, history suggests that it is perhaps society's most noxious ill.

The worst effects of pervasive joblessness on family, politics, society take time to incubate, and they show themselves only slowly. But ultimately, they leave deep marks that endure long after boom times have returned. Some of these marks are just now becoming visible, and even if the economy magically and fully recovers tomorrow, new ones will continue to appear. The longer our economic slump lasts, the deeper they'll be.

If it persists much longer, this era of high joblessness will likely change the life course and character of a generation of young adults and quite possibly those of the children behind them as well. It will leave an indelible imprint on many blue-collar white men and on white culture. It could change the nature of modern marriage, and also cripple marriage as an institution in many communities. It may already be plunging many inner cities into a kind of despair and dysfunction not seen for decades. Ultimately, it is likely to warp our politics, our culture, and the character of our society for years.

It's important to remember that that to conservatives bent on contracting the economy, this is not only acceptable, but to be expected. It is necessary destruction, the unavoidable collateral damage of a quest to remake our economy into one more aligned to their beliefs.

“Pain will be inflicted,” as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie succinctly put it.

“So be it,” as John Boehner would say.

After saying goodnight to our eldest son, I remembered of a lyric from “The River,” Bruce Springsteen's 31-year-old classic that sounds like it could have been written yesterday.

Now those memories come back to haunt me,

They haunt me like a curse.

Is a dream a lie if it don't come true.

Or is it something worse?

Is a dream a lie if it don't come true? Is it something worse?

I hope that we — especially our children — never have to find out.