Mil­len­ni­als and the Amer­i­can myth

Work­ing to ease the equal­ity gap ben­e­fits us all, not just the poor

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - OPINION - By Dale Walker

Raj Chetty of Stan­ford Univer­sity and as­so­ci­ates an­a­lyzed the like­li­hood that an Amer­i­can child will earn more than his fa­ther. In their 2016 study, they found 90 per­cent of us Baby Boomers did. But for peo­ple born in the ’80s, the chances fall to only 50 per­cent.

This is hard for Baby Boomers to be­lieve, be­cause most of us did so well. My an­nual salary rose to 45 times that of my fa­ther’s high­est salary. Many had sim­i­lar re­sults, es­pe­cially around the pros­per­ous Bay Area.

My par­ents were fac­tory work­ers. They could only get the four of us through pub­lic schools. But pub­lic schools were good. Stu­dents could man­age the cost of col­lege in the ’60s with work, bor­row­ing and mod­est schol­ar­ships. Good jobs abounded. Wages in­creased. Eco­nomic growth was strong.

The coun­try was also much more equal in wealth and in­comes.

Un­der­scor­ing the cri­sis, Don­ald Trump rode to the pres­i­dency on a wave of anger over jobs, wages and loss of op­por­tu­nity.

Amer­i­cans are also blinded by a stub­born na­tional prej­u­dice pre­vent­ing us from ac­cept­ing loss of op­por­tu­nity. Since our found­ing, Amer­i­cans have prided them­selves on in­di­vid­u­al­ity. Notwith­stand­ing the facts, the myth of Amer­i­can op­por­tu­nity avail­able for all has strength­ened, even in the face of de­clin­ing op­por­tu­nity. More of us say we don’t need govern­ment, be­cause this is the land of op­por­tu­nity. Ev­ery­one can make it with­out help, if only they try.

While many of us have the money to pro­tect op­por­tu­nity for our own kids, op­por­tu­nity has plum­meted for the un­der­priv­i­leged. If the av­er­age achiev­ing the Amer­i­can dream has fallen from 90 per­cent to 50 per­cent, the chances for a kid of color from a poor neigh­bor­hood are now dis­mal.

Chetty’s group found slow­ing eco­nomic growth ex­plained 29 per­cent of the de­cline. Ris­ing in­equal­ity ex­plained 71 per­cent. If growth and in­equal­ity had stayed the same, then op­por­tu­nity would not have de­clined. They con­cluded: “If one wants to re­vive the ‘Amer­i­can Dream’ of high rates of ab­so­lute mo­bil­ity (op­por­tu­nity), one must have an in­ter­est in growth that is shared more broadly across the in­come dis­tri­bu­tion.”

We are ad­vanc­ing to­ward a highly strat­i­fied so­ci­ety of haves and have-nots. This will make walk­ing down the street un­pleas­ant, maybe dan­ger­ous. Crime, drug ad­dic­tion, home­less­ness and other so­ci­etal costs will in­crease.

Even­tu­ally, con­tin­u­ance of this trend will re­sult in blood­shed and rev­o­lu­tion.

An­ti­tax hawk Grover Norquist says we should drown govern­ment in the bath­tub, but it turns out op­por­tu­nity goes down the drain with it.

We don’t need to grow govern­ment. We can re­al­lo­cate to pro­vide funds. Lo­cal and state gov­ern­ments can do a lot.

Let’s take the first step by agree­ing that our pri­or­i­ties are restor­ing shared pros­per­ity and op­por­tu­nity.

It’s not just in the in­ter­est for the un­der­priv­i­leged among us. It’s in ev­ery­one’s best in­ter­est.

Dale Walker is a San Fran­cisco re­tired fi­nan­cial ser­vices ex­ec­u­tive. He serves on the boards of Pa­cific Vi­sion Foun­da­tion, the Grad­u­ate The­o­log­i­cal Union and Ben­e­fi­cial State Bank. He is a 2017 Fel­low in Har­vard’s Ad­vanced Lead­er­ship Ini­tia­tive.

JGI/Jamie Grill / Getty Im­ages/Blend Im­ages

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