May 19, 2018

What we're reading: The destruction of the American Dream

An attendee holds an American flag at a United States naturalization ceremony

An attendee holds an American flag at a United States naturalization ceremony. Photo: Paul Marotta/Getty Images

Two new cover stories in TIME and The Atlantic argue that the United States is increasingly becoming divided into two distinct classes: those whose days are increasingly affected by systemic issues that drive inequality — like crumbling infrastructure and subpar public education — and those at the top who can ignore it all.

Why it matters: The promises of the American Dream are out of reach for many citizens as the income threshold for true comfort has stretched higher and higher in recent decades thanks to both politics and economics, transforming — and, arguably, destroying —  the middle class that has long served as the nation's backbone.

The stories: Steven Brill writes in TIME that citizens "with average incomes have been left to fend for themselves" while Matthew Stewart highlights the new American middle class in The Atlantic — the 9.9% who lie between the top 0.1% and bottom 90%.

The protected: Brill defines them as those who took advantage of the American Dream throughout the middle of the 20th century and "were able to consolidate their winnings, outsmart and co-opt the forces that might have reined them in, and pull up the ladder so more could not share in their success or challenge their primacy."

  • For them, the "new, broken America works fine" as they "don't need government for much."

The unprotected: Brill says they're the vast majority of Americans who "may be independent and hardworking, but they look to their government to preserve their way of life and maybe even improve it."

  • Without "a tax code that tempers the extremes of income equality and makes economic opportunity more than an empty cliché," it can be impossible for them to survive.
  • Looking to the future, "the unprotected need the government to provide good public schools so that their children have a chance to advance."

The new "middle" class: According to Stewart, the 9.9% is "the new aristocracy" — the "lawyers, doctors, dentists, mid-level investment bankers, MBAs with opaque job titles, and assorted other professionals" that insist they are middle class.

  • To break into this group in 2016, it took $1.2 million — and $2.4 million if you wanted to sit comfortably in the middle.
  • They've shut out the rest of the world, believing that they "don't have any privilege at all," tending to "conflate the stress of status competition with the stress of survival."

But, but, but: Both men think there's hope for the future — both from inside and outside America's upper classes.

  • Brill sees an inflection point when people "see that we need leaders who are prepared and intelligent, who can channel our frustration rather than exploit it, and who can unite the middle class and the poor rather than divide them," allowing the country to "[lay] the groundwork for the feeling of disgust to be channeled into a restoration."
  • And Stewart believes that his "new aristocracy" has to look within to move forward: "We need to peel our eyes away from the mirror of our own success and think about what we can do in our everyday lives for the people who aren’t our neighbors."

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