The American Dream of Poverty

As nostalgic love for the “American Dream” looms so large in the minds of most Americans, poverty continues to be one of the least understood phenomenon in developed nations like the U.S.—where the general assumption from those on the inside is that one’s poverty is the sole and direct result of one’s own choices.

The entire foundation of American identity, and indeed the concept of American exceptionalism, is born from the idea that following one’s heart and doing that which you dream of, will lead to a life of prosperity and happiness. But in today’s America nothing could be further from the truth. We no longer share the majestic dreaming of our historic makers; great feats of exploration, wonder, and the promise of excellence have been supplanted with aspirations of paying the monthly bills. “Just getting by” has become the new dream of middle-class Americans, who currently rank higher than the Black Rhino on the endangered species list.

Today the American dream comes with a contractual clause, an asterisk that leads those with poor vision to an obscure and fine-printed passage that says, “Hold on there buddy,“ and then proceeds to enumerate the endless concessions one must make in order to follow their dreams, including the acceptance of a life in poverty and socioeconomic imprisonment.

Crisis for middle-class families looks a lot different than it used to. A far cry from worries about kids hanging around with the “wrong crowd” is the mystical relationship between a college degree and a living wage. The more worrisome problem of younger generations has become any real commitment to following their dreams, of doing work that they are passionate about, because for every parent and critic alike, the inevitably inquiry that follows a statement like “I love history” is “How are you going to make any money doing that?”

Ah yes. Money. Being poor in the neoliberal age of America— where a conservative political circus systematically dismantles education and voting rights—is a graver sentence than it used to be. In the time before the cult-like dogma of “trickle-down economics,” the working poor had a decent shot at achieving food and shelter on a modest income. Now families work 65 hours a week but still need to rely on food stamps, housing subsidies, and other welfare assistance just to get the basics down. And that’s precisely why career choice has become so paramount in the lives of young adults.

When you have a nation where education costs are high and wages are low, the problem of “too few jobs” also becomes the result of a working population’s competition for jobs with an adequate wage—not just ANY job. Simply put, there are plenty of jobs available for anyone who wants to work them—hell there’s always work to be done for free (am I right freelancers?), but the problem is that people aren’t competing for THOSE jobs. People are competing for jobs with a living wage, which essentially shrinks the “job pool” down to the size of a “job puddle”.

A limited number of jobs with a living wage leads to an even more crowded job market, overspecialized and one dimensional, where high school graduates race through the bottleneck of a few academic pathways that may lead to a living wage. And that’s not the only concern. This increased competition not only determines who gets to be middle-class and who gets to be homeless, it also affects the quality of employable skills possessed by human capital. We’ve heard it time and time again from corporate talking heads: “American college graduates just don’t have the skills and abilities we’re looking for in a competitive job market”. (Keep in mind, also, that most of this rhetoric is a means of obscuring the fact that corporate bottom lines favor cheaper labor elsewhere, not necessarily the “best skilled workers,” as the “best skilled” also costs the most.)

So why are American workers perceived as sub par when it comes to the qualities needed to succeed in their chosen careers? My contention is that the skills and abilities of American workers isn’t necessarily the issue—there will always be “good workers” and “bad workers”. The real issue is the mismatching of persons and their skill sets to jobs. A diversity of skills and abilities within the American workforce is inherently dependent on the freedom of choice individuals exercise when choosing a career that best matches their genuine abilities and motivations. The problem then becomes that with so few jobs that pay a living wage, the ONLY motivation for choosing any given career has become “making enough money”. Therefore, the freedom of choice as it applies to the job market, is directly hindered by the lack of adequate wages and the astronomical costs of higher education. Young people are abandoning careers that they might otherwise be better matched for simply because the lack of wages in such fields deter their interest. This is a prime example of how inherently, money, if left unchecked, can actually dilute the quality of a society that insists on putting profit before people.

Pretend for a moment that I spread out 10 overturned cardboard boxes in front of a group of 25 high school graduates. On each cardboard box is written a profession. Under each box is a pile of money. In this experiment, it is communicated to the high school graduates that although one or two of the professional boxes contain a little more money than the others, all of the professions will provide them with enough money to live a comfortable and happy life. You don’t need to be a Harvard graduate to understand that, more than likely, each box will be chosen by more than one student. 

Now let’s try to think of the experiment as it represents the true state of America’s current job market. Instead of one or two of the professional boxes containing a little more money than the others, let’s imagine that the high school graduates learn that only two of the boxes contain enough money to live on, while the other eight will require that they live in a low socioeconomic class which may require them to be on welfare and accept food stamps. You can bet your life that those two professions with adequate wages will be chosen by the majority of the students—heck, there might even be a fistfight or two.  

This is precisely the state of affairs in the American job market. 

So, when we talk about the “lack of skills” and “talent” in American workers, what we’re really describing is a bunch of people who became doctors who probably should’ve been auto mechanics, or construction workers, or carpenters, or customer service representatives. How many people do you know that went back to school for nursing, despite having never previously expressed any explicit interest in the medical field? The nursing field and other equivalent medical professions are exploding with applicants competing for adequate wages, NOT the job of their dreams.

The end result of this bottleneck race to a living wage produces an entire nation of nurses, doctors, and lawyers, who’d rather be doing something else and so are more incentivized to engage in bad practices than they are to uphold ethical and professional standards within their chosen field.

It’s my assertion that some of the decline we see an American employee quality has little to do with our lack of education, or ability to compete with citizens of other nations, and has more to do with the misappropriation of human capital, the production of a workforce that ceases to choose a profession for which they are passionate and have natural abilities, but rather, a safe job with adequate wages and for which they are entirely mismatched. In other words, the quality of America’s workforce continues to decline because people are choosing their careers based on adequate pay and a fear of being in poverty, rather than choosing something they know they’ll enjoy and for which they have skills.

What’s more striking is that this mismatching of skills and abilities to career professionals works both ways when considering the extreme costs of higher education. In the same way that a man or woman chooses to become a doctor or lawyer instead of their passion for art or music, someone born into a socioeconomic class of poverty may have all the talent and passion in the world to become a first rate doctor, but instead ends up being a self-loathing employee at Burger King simply because their family can’t afford to pay for tuition. And that may be precisely why that young man or woman behind the counter simply “doesn’t care”.

Now, some people might not believe that. There are people who will say, “Well if they’re really that smart they’ll get scholarships and go to school for free.” But the problem persists on a systemic level, in which structural discrimination against socioeconomic class begins early and is baked into society, where messages of “don’t even try to become a doctor because you’ll never afford school for it,” becomes its own culture, deeply entrenched in one’s personal beliefs. The few exceptional anecdotes which make the news, the ones where the inner-city minority child becomes a first-class brain surgeon, are exactly that: exceptional.

Imagine how many more brilliant scientists, doctors, and other professionals we might have if the messages of “you can do anything” matched our society’s dedication to deliberately construct a path to success for everyone. Only when that day comes—the day when wages are paid based on the value of people and not classism for the sake of profit—will we see gains that far exceed the pockets of fast food workers and give rise to a nation rebuilt, where life rings true to that sacred oath: “liberty and justice for all.”

Matthew Rosario

American / Writer / Musician