Martin Luther King’s dream did not begin and end with the battle against racial bigotry. He embraced a wider vision of equality that included families of all colors and creeds. Speaking to the AFL-CIO convention in December 1961, he spoke of bringing into “full realization the American dream — a dream yet unfulfilled. A dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few….”
Sadly, that dream of King’s remains unfulfilled. In an important story in The New York Times, Jason de Parle deflates America’s myth of a classless society. Citing five large studies, the article shows the limited opportunities available to those Americans raised in the bottom fifth of incomes. In a typical result, “about 62 percent of Americans raised in the top fifth of incomes stay in the top two-fifths.” Similarly, “65 percent born in the bottom fifth stay in the bottom two-fifths.”
“It’s becoming conventional wisdom that the U.S. does not have as much mobility as most other advanced countries,” says Isabel V. Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution. “I don’t think you’ll find too many people who will argue with that.”
Indeed, observers across the board have begun to note the country’s troubling lack of mobility. Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum warns that income mobility in Europe “is actually greater…than it is in America.” The conservative National Review concedes that “most Western European and English-speaking nations have higher rates of mobility.”
The reasons for this stagnation are legion: deep-seated poverty, especially among poor children raised in single-parent families; gaping holes in the safety net for struggling families; health care insecurity; and the enormous costs of college degrees, to name a few. Jewish agencies, by the way, have been struggling to address many of these challenges to the degree that they can, often in partnership with government programs. But deep budget woes and the denigration of the role of government have hindered these efforts, and left policymakers paralyzed in the face of enormous challenges.
What’s needed is the political honesty and courage to turn King’s American dream into reality.