Politics & Policy

The American Dream Is Dying

(Dreamstime image: Peerayot To-im)
To save it, we’ll have to repair our broken culture.

Tim was a goofy, big-hearted kid who everyone liked and everyone just knew was doomed. His dad took off when he was young, and the child support payments were inconsistent, at best. His mom had a job and kept a roof over their heads, but her two great vices — men and booze — left her little time for maternal love. She cycled through boyfriends and whiskey bottles, leaving Tim to fend for himself.

Tim tried. He really did. He buckled down and got decent grades in high school, even if his attendance was inconsistent. He got jobs, but he’d quit quickly if a manager was mean or if he just felt like sleeping in. His mom yelled at him, but who was she to tell him what to do? Besides, half the time she yelled she was drunk.

Then, one day, he tried some of his mom’s booze. He found out if he just drank a little bit from a few bottles, he could get drunk off her supply, and she wouldn’t even notice. By his senior year, he was missing more classes. He was “sick,” he’d say, when actually he was hung over. His mom got worse, he cared less, and during his senior year in high school he moved out of the house and stayed with a friend in a spare bedroom.

Tim graduated from high school, but only because it’s tough not to graduate if you can show up just enough. He was 18, he had a high-school diploma, an alcoholic mom, an absent dad, and no real plan. He couldn’t hang with his friend any longer. So he decided to leave town and move in with his father, a hot-tempered man with an even worse drinking problem.

That move would likely mean the end of Tim. He was leaving his friends, leaving the church that nagged him until he came to youth-group meetings, to disappear into the same bottle that had claimed his parents. He was still just a teenager, but his future hung in the balance, and no one was optimistic he’d pull through.

I thought of Tim (not his real name) yesterday, when I read the first of three disturbing reports about the slow death of the American dream. If you were born in 1940, there was a 92 percent chance you’d do better than your parents. That number has declined every decade since — from 79 percent for those born in 1950, to 62 percent in 1960, 61 percent in 1970, to a low of 50 percent for those born in 1980. Even worse, younger people who do better than their parents are highly concentrated in the upper-middle class. Those born outside of the top-30th income percentile were likely to make less than their parents:

As I was reading and digesting this information, I saw the news that American life expectancy has decreased for the first time in decades. The decline is due to increases in deaths from multiple causes, including heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, and suicide. And hidden within the statistics is the third disturbing report, a rise in fatal heroin overdoses so dramatic that heroin deaths have for the first time surpassed gun homicides:

None of this should be surprising, and none of it is easy to fix. I’d argue that the two most important books of the decade are Charles Murray’s Coming Apart and Robert Putnam’s Our Kids. Murray’s book potently demonstrates how the upper-middle class is diverging from the rest of America. Prosperous families tend to delay childbearing until after marriage, complete their educations, get married, and stay married. Poor and working-class families have children out of wedlock, struggle to finish school, and divorce or remain unmarried at much greater rates.

Putnam’s book details the heartbreaking impact of early-childhood trauma from dissolving families and economic instability. By the time kids reach young adulthood, they’ve been shaped by their backgrounds in indelible ways. That doesn’t mean that individual kids can’t rise above their troubles, but the large-scale impact is decidedly negative.

There is simply an overwhelming amount of social science showing that single-parent and unstable families do worse economically than the stable, mother-father household. If you look at the charts above and then look at the charts below, reality slaps you in the face. From the Heritage Foundation, here are the percentages of out-of-wedlock births in the U.S. over time:

As Murray and Putnam show, charts like this conceal an ocean of heartbreak. Kids and adults aren’t blank slates, possessing equal prospects for success regardless of family situation. Adults in broken families experience the pain of separation and the psychological challenge of uncertainty and conflict in the most important relationships of their lives. Kids in broken families are often traumatized in ways that linger with them throughout their adult lives. Government can’t fix trauma. Government can’t make a man and a woman stay together.

What does this all mean? In real terms, it means that our nation is changing. We’re producing a generation of poor and working-class young people who are less equipped to take advantage of economic opportunity and a generation of upper-middle-class kids who are fully prepared to enjoy the fruits of the world’s most potent and innovative economy. In other words, it’s a great time to be prosperous in America. It’s a terrible time to be poor or working-class.

It also means that Americans need to redouble their efforts to care for one another, to reach beyond class lines and intervene in individual lives. Which brings me back to Tim — and Tim’s church.

Americans need to redouble their efforts to care for one another, to reach beyond class lines and intervene in individual lives.

On the very day that he was packing to leave home, to live with his alcoholic and unstable father, his church arrived. Kids from his youth group begged him to stay, promising to be his new family. A couple from the church pledged to pay the security deposit and first month’s rent on an apartment if he could find a job. He found an apartment next door to that family, and they checked on him virtually every day, bringing him food and inviting him over for dinner. They hovered like mother hens as friends from church helped him get a job that he kept (in part because those same friends held him accountable), and he started a relationship with a beautiful young Christian girl from a loving, intact home.

It turned out that Tim wasn’t doomed. He married that girl, and now they have a loving, stable home and are launching kids out into the world who grew up knowing nothing but the support of a mom and dad. This is how lives change. This is how America can start to repair itself. But instead of focusing on loving our neighbor, all too many of us focus instead on finding a political savior, the man on the white horse who’ll make things right. When culture changes this profoundly, it creates wounds public policy simply can’t heal.

Instead, through God’s grace, America can heal itself, but it won’t be easy. It will take a culture change on the same scale as the sexual revolution that fractured families and even now relentlessly teaches the gospel of self-indulgence. It will take a renewed love for the “least of these” in our American family, and it will take men and women who care for others not just by sending money but by creating deep and meaningful relationships.

The American Dream is slipping away, and only the American people can bring it back from the brink.


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