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Poverty, Privilege, and the Dead American Dream

Once upon a time, I believed in the American Dream.

In fact, I once believed myself to be living proof that it existed. I bought into the notion that if one worked hard enough, one could be upwardly mobile no matter the adversity they faced. I thought that the only limitations to achievement in the United States were laziness and stupidity. I looked around me at all the people who were not achieving some form of the American Dream and decided that they were to blame for their circumstances. I had worked hard to get what I wanted, and even though I often struggled with Impostor Syndrome, I didn't waiver in my belief that only lack of initiative prevented most folks from achieving greatness.

The truth is, I had so many examples in my own life that debunked the star-spangled spectacular mythos of the American Dream that, looking back, I find it laughable that I ever thought prosperity was available to everyone who wanted to work for it. It took me a long time to realize that my rosy view of the American Dream was a result of my own privilege.

I would bet someone a cheeseburger lunch at Cosmic Carryout that when I post this essay on my personal Facebook page, I will get push-back about mentioning white privilege within an hour. I get it. I was hesitant for a long time to admit the existence of white privilege, too. If you are a regular reader of my essays, you know a good bit about how I grew up. In short, we didn't have much, and I know I missed out on opportunities as a result. It was hard for me to reconcile how I could possibly have any sort of privilege when I came from a socioeconomic class that seems anything but privileged.

Some years ago, I was in the radio business, and I remember being struck by a public service announcement distributed by the Ad Council. In the ad, a voice actor calls the same number repeatedly to inquire about a Park Avenue apartment for rent. He calls using various voices meant to represent different racial and ethnic groups, and every time, the person answering the phone quickly informs him that the apartment has been rented. Finally, he calls using his real voice and purporting to be "Graeme Wellington." The rental agent is happy to give him information even though she previously told him, when he portrayed himself as African American, Indian, and Hispanic, that the apartment had been rented.

I'm certain that the piece was dramatized, but it made me start to think about how real discrimination is. Finally, I realized that simply by virtue of being a white male I automatically have the privilege to ignore certain issues because they do not affect me personally. It was easy to pretend that racism, discrimination, sexism, and bigotry didn't exist because those things didn't hurt me. That's white privilege, and even if I couldn't afford the apartment in question, the rental agent might be more likely to take my call simply because I sound white and have a white name. (Incidentally, isn't it sort of fascinating that we know enough about what it means to "sound white" or "sound black" that we can all understand what is happening in the PSA? We are programmed to understand stereotypes even if we do not agree with them.)

When we take the time to understand that white privilege does in fact exist and admit that it is a factor at play in US society whether we like it or not, it becomes easier to understand other forms of privilege. The concept of privilege helps us understand not only poverty but the ways Americans access or are prohibited from accessing the American Dream.

One of the most important lessons we can learn from history is this: there are exceptions to everything. Certainly there were incidents of African Americans fighting for the South during the US Civil War. That does not mean that most, or even many, African Americans believed in the Confederate cause. Some labor activists came to the South from the North to unionize cotton mills, but that doesn't mean that all labor activists were "outside agitators." There are some frozen yogurt machines labeled "chocolate" that actually dispense vanilla froyo. That doesn't mean you should distrust every froyo dispenser automatically. There's almost an unlimited number of circumstances and configurations that prove that universalizing based on a limited number of occurrences is not wise.

Both privilege and universalization help us to explain the fallacies of so many of the arguments surrounding poverty in the United States. Those who have never pulled themselves out of poverty have very little insight into what it takes to make this happen. Having not experienced it themselves, it is difficult to understand how or why some people are able to lift themselves out of inter-generational poverty. That is not to say that they cannot sympathize or even empathize with those who do. However, what often happens is that someone who doesn't understand firsthand what it takes to recover from poverty begins to think that if some people can do it than anyone should be able to.

The stark reality is that climbing out of poverty is highly unlikely today in the United States. Increasingly, demographics indicate that Americans tend to remain in the social classes into which they are born. Those who are born poor tend to stay that way even when they attain higher education. A recent study noted that upward mobility between classes is increasingly unlikely. That is not to say it is entirely unlikely. I managed to escape poverty. I know many others who did, too. That does not mean that everyone can.

It is easy for those of us who found a way out of poverty to be self-congratulatory. After all, we truly have accomplished something important. We have changed our lives, generally for the better. Few of us got here on our own, but most of us invested time, energy, and emotion in making it happen. Most of us worked for it, and that is an incredibly respectable reality. Those of us who elevated ourselves out of the lower classes now have privilege, and it is essential that we not let that privilege blind us to those around us who lack that privilege.

Recently, a reader responded to one of my essays via social media. She asked how I managed to elevate myself out of poverty. The truth is, I don't know. I wish I did. I wish I had some magic formula, because I would replicate it and give it away to the masses. No two instances of poverty are the same, and therefore no single method of escape from it is universal.

Southern author Rick Bragg said that he climbed up his mother's backbone and out of poverty. That's probably as close an explanation as I will ever find to explain my own situation. I don't know that I have ever met anyone who found a way out of poverty without the help of others. Sometimes, it is those who have the least to give who are the most helpful. Sometimes, the best and most useful help doesn't come in the form of money or resources, but sometimes it does. Sometimes, knowing that somebody gives a damn about you and wants you to succeed is the first step. Sometimes, we are so busy fighting the soul-crushing poverty we see all around us that we end up in a better place and have absolutely no clue how it happened. And sometimes, we feel guilty because we escaped while those we love the most did not.

What I have come to know is this. I am the owner of a whole lot of privilege, and even though I started out at a disadvantage compared to many, I have had some form of privilege for my entire life. In addition to my status as a white male with an advanced degree, I have a platform from which I am able to reach thousands of people every month. With privilege comes responsibility. For me personally, that means that the highest and best use of my own privilege is not necessarily to use it only to advance myself. For me, it means I am called to use it as a means of reaching back to those who lack privilege to be an advocate and an ally. And for me, that usually means researching and writing about poverty and those who are impoverished, using my own life experiences as a guide.

So many of those who speak from positions of privilege cite the American Dream as the mechanism by which all people in the US have the opportunity to escape poverty. The existence of this piece of American mythology has been used for ages to justify victim-blaming. If the American Dream is something that exists and is functional, then there's no reason why people have to remain poor, right? If there is a standard process through which Americans from all socioeconomic classes find upward mobility, then there must exist some formulaic set of behaviors or actions which, if followed, result in prosperity and success. However, this is not the case. If it were, then everyone who works hard and does the "right" things would be upwardly mobile. At some point, we must admit the grim reality that some people, no matter how hard they work and no matter how many times they make the socially-agreed-upon right choice, will remain impoverished their entire lives. To them, the American Dream is nothing but a fantasy.

I'm not sure there has ever been a time when access to the American Dream has been universal. I'm also not sure it remains productive to continue to cite it as an appropriate response when discussing poverty. It puts the blame on the victim in many cases. One is forced either to admit that some people lack access to the American Dream or to blame those who can't access it for some unnamed shortcoming that prevented them from upward mobility.

As for me, I am not comfortable with a set of systems in which it is usually only a fortunate accident when someone from the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder are able to find their way up to a higher rung. When we critically assess the state of the American Dream in 2017, we quickly realize that it is neither a panacea not an excuse to prevent us from making the hard systemic changes necessary to end poverty.


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