When you’re an immigrant coming from another country where you may be middle class or upper-middle class and privileged in many ways, you lose that status when you move to the US. All of that social capital that you and your family may have accumulated over the years, and that opened doors for you in your home country, that was your safety net — that no longer exists. No one in your new country knows what your background is. The new culture doesn’t know what to make of you. Back in India, my family was by no means wealthy, but we had a high social status because of education, because my parents had been to some of India’s top schools and colleges. That carried with it a real weight but was not acknowledged or known in the US.
Why is there so much inequality in the US? People have been trying to find answers.
The attempt to channel this fierce struggle for the heights of wealth and power through a national education system explains the concentration of America’s smartest and most ambitious. But the wicked marriage of meritocracy and economies of scale bears a more subtle cost. Let us return to the essay we started with, “RIP, American Dream.” Why does Mr. O’Brien say the the American Dream died?
“This is how the American Dream ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper of elite school applications by poor kids. Like it or not, the Ivies and other top schools are our conduit to the top, and far too many low-income students who should be there are not.”
There are two versions of the American Dream – one a rising standard of living for all and the the other the ability to achieve success through hard work and talent. Which dream do you live?
It is downright dangerous to identify the American Dream with intergenerational mobility, with progress defined as the children of janitors and store clerks becoming lawyers or doctors or professors. The number of job openings for vocations that require little or no training beyond high school will continue to exceed job openings in elite professions. It would be a social disaster if many janitors and store clerks are overqualified for the work they do and resentful of the society that promised too few high-status jobs to too many ambitious citizens.
A nation in which most citizens are told that they can achieve anything they want and that if they fail to do so the fault is purely their own, will be a society with a majority of embittered failures. In contrast, one in which the standard of living goes up constantly over time, for the less educated and less able as well as the highly educated and talented, is likely to be a happier nation.