Is the American dream alive or dead in South Carolina?
By Phil Noble
If you stop and really think about it, this is the most fundamental question one could ask about our state and nation.
And the answer says a lot about the kind of people we are as a state and a nation. The American Dream is both very simple and very profound. It has been the driving force behind our country since its earliest days.
We all have our own slightly different definitions of the American Dream. This is mine: if you work hard and play by the rules, your children will be better off than you are.
The French writer Alexis de Tocqueville traveling America in the 1830s described it simply as “the charm of anticipated success.”
The actual phrase ‘The American Dream’ was coined in 1931 by James Truslow Adams in his book “The Epic of America.” He defined it as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement… It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
This simple dream has motivated countless millions from all corners of the world to come to America. They were/are of all colors, creeds, religions and cultures but they all shared one thing – a belief in the Dream. They were/are willing to uproot themselves from their extended families, a place and culture that had nourished their people for generations – and risk it all, their very lives, to come to America.
The obvious exception is African Americans who were brought here as slaves. For about 50% of those brought to North America, Charleston was their point of entry. And, one of the great ironies of our history is that the descendants of these slaves have, by and large, become among the most dedicated, loyal and hopeful of all Americans. They believe in the American Dream despite their historic and present pains.
Recently, I was talking with one of the Freedom Riders – those brave young people (most in their 20s or younger) who in 1961 were willing to suffer horrible beatings and even death for the simple right to ride in the front of a bus and eat at a restaurant in the deep South. He said, “Because we were denied the full benefits of the American Dream for so long, we were willing to fight the hardest and risk even death to get it … and now we appreciate it the most.”
The American Dream’s power is still here today. If you need evidence, pick up a newspaper and read about what immigrants, legal and illegal, are willing to endure today to get to American soil.
So, what is the state of the American Dream today?
As reported by the CNBC Network in a recent poll, “Rumors of the American dream being dead have been greatly exaggerated. To that point, 63 percent of Americans believe they are living the American dream, up from 59 percent in 2011.”
And what of South Carolina?
Forbes Magazine has recently developed an American Dream Index as a way to “look at how America’s middle class is faring economically under President Trump.” They combine seven different economic indexes and rank each state. You may be surprised that South Carolina ranked #6. This ranking is great news – but if we examine the scope of the study, we find that their focus is limited to the middle class.
For those of us in South Carolina who are on the middle rungs of the ladder to the American Dream, the Dream is alive and well… doing very well indeed, as in 6th in the country.
But, another recent authoritative study of the 50 states shows a very different picture for low income South Carolina’s striving to climb to the middle class and higher. The Equality of Opportunity Project at Harvard did an in-depth analysis of economic conditions in every part of the U.S. and tracked how often people were able to move up the economic ladder over time.
The project created a map of the geography of upward mobility in America. The “map shows rates of upward mobility for children born in the 1980s for 741 metro and rural areas in the U.S. Upward mobility is measured by the fraction of children who reach the top fifth of the national income distribution, conditional on having parents in the bottom fifth.” Their color-coded map goes from deep red for least mobile to light beige for most mobile. (Google Equality of Opportunity Project to see the map and study.)
What they found for South Carolina was depressing. South Carolina was the only state on the map where the entire state was deep red – i.e. less than 4.8% of our children have climbed the ladder to success.
This is not about the racial division between black and white South Carolinians. It is about the economic division between black and white South Carolinians and other black and white South Carolinians.
For those of us in South Carolina who are struggling to even reach up and get a hand on the lowest rung of the ladder to the American Dream, the Dream is more like a nightmare – worse than in any of the other 50 states.
There truly are two South Carolinas.
And the reality is that these two South Carolinas are not separate, they are one – we are one South Carolina.
We as a state cannot succeed until we all succeed. It’s not possible to wall off our suburbs, separate our cities into pockets of affluence and poverty or put a fence at the boundaries between urban and rural.
In many different ways in our history (and today), we have tried this. It led to greater divisions, more poverty, increased racism, further isolation, more hostility and greater violence and bloodshed. It did not work in our history and it will not work now.
It is both impractical and immoral.
We are all better off when we are all better off.
The American Dream, the South Carolina Dream, must be a shared dream for all of South Carolina – or it will be no dream at all.