10.24 The American Dream
Wednesday, October 24th, 2012 | Bob McKinnon
Bob McKinnon is the director of the GALEWiLL Center for Opportunity & Progress. This article was originally published in The Huffington Post on October 24, 2012.
In January of this year, Mark Halperin of Time magazine said on the Charlie Rose show that "the 2012 presidential election could come down to a referendum on the American Dream, what it means and how people achieve it."
Unfortunately, to date the referendum has been heavy on sound bites and light on substance.
We've had superficial debates over who "built this," gotcha moments about the 1 percent, the 99 percent and the 47 percent and, most recently, a misguided conversation about Big Bird.
Each of these flash points could have led to a real debate about what each party would like to do to create more opportunities for Americans to pursue their dreams. But instead of leading to principled policy discussion they instead turned into ways to rack up political points.
Last Monday, we released results from our national survey of 2,000 Americans as part of our project The Invisible Dream: Creating a New Conversation About the American Dream, done in conjunction with Public Agenda.
This research offers a glimpse into what Americans think of the American Dream and what it takes to achieve it. And it offers a jumping off point for a more nuanced conversation about what it takes for Americans to get ahead and the role our government and its political leaders can play to help make more of these dreams a reality.
Our research shows that on one hand, Americans do broadly agree on the essential ingredients for achieving the dream. Hard work, strong families and a good education are each seen as essential by more than 75% of Americans (hard work topped the list at almost 90%). These three consensus items raise an important question about whether we are doing enough to ensure that the foundations of character, family and education are being laid in every home, town and city across America.
On the other hand, there were significant political divisions as to what else was essential for achieving the dream after "the big three." We saw percentage swings between self-identified members of the two parties of over 30 points for factors such as basic healthcare or a strong free enterprise system. By asking candidates what they believe is most essential and why, Americans could gain greater insight into a candidates legislative priorities, if elected.
And perhaps most germane to this election, Americans are split right down the middle when asked if the American Dream is "mainly something that people do for themselves" or if "communities and government should take steps so every child has a fair chance achieve the dream."
Two days after our release, the political season moved towards its home stretch with the first of three presidential debates last Wednesday.
Instead of starting a national conversation about the American Dream, we got one on Big Bird.
Ironically, while Americans believe this election will have a profound impact on people's ability to achieve the American Dream by a margin of two to one, it was not mentioned once during this debate.
Beyond not mentioning the term, what was more concerning was that there was little substantive discussion of what either candidate believes is necessary for more Americans to get ahead.
There was no mention of how children can overcome poverty, how families can stay on their feet in an era of stagnant wages and decreased benefits, or how our elders can live securely in their golden years with little to no nest eggs. Nor was there any mention of immigrants, veterans, the health of our cities, or a myriad of other topics relevant to our times and central to a discussion of the American Dream.
If this election were truly framed as a referendum on the American Dream, then Mitt Romney's comment on de-funding PBS would have not just sent twitter a blaze with Big Bird jokes and filled the airwaves with Jimmy Kimmel parodies and opportunistic campaign ads, but could have led a serious conversation on the role Sesame Street has played in helping low-income children be more prepared for kindergarten. (In fact at least five independent studies have confirmed Sesame Street has improved school readiness, test scores, literacy skills and social behavior among viewers -- most demonstrably among low-income children.)
In an event to release our research, a panel that included Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post and Hedrick Smith, author of Who Stole the American Dream? and moderated by Juan Williams of Fox News provided the kind of serious discussion we need our leaders to have and our citizens to participate in.
"We do need a more nuanced conversation, and we need to get away from this sense that is being created in the political world right now that it's either all being a Horatio Alger story or it's all having government support to help you," said Sawhill during the panel discussion. "It's not either/or, it's both."
The American Dream is powerful in many ways and for many reasons, as more than one person told us in focus groups conducted as part of our project, "without the American Dream, there is no America."
But perhaps its greatest purpose is to help provide focus -- both for individuals who envision something better for themselves, and for our leaders who must see through their macroeconomics and down to the real people inside the numbers.
"There's a tendency to talk about the American economy and its performance in terms of GDP," said Hedrick Smith during the panel. "When you're talking about the American Dream, what's useful, even though it's amorphous to some people, [is focusing] attention on what we're delivering to the individual."
Politics is all about making choices. And before we make our choice in the ballot box, it would be helpful if we better understood how our candidates make theirs.
For example, we asked Americans to tell us which of two 15-year-old children would be more likely to achieve the American Dream: One had a strong family but lacked ambition while the other had a strong work ethic but had an abusive family.
Seventy percent of Americans believe that the child in the abusive family is more likely to achieve the American Dream.
We like to think that in this country -- no matter how bad things are -- with hard work we can overcome anything. But is this wonderful ideal potentially a limiting belief? We often hear impressive stories of people who have overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges to escape bad neighborhoods or failing schools or damaged families. We hold them up as shining examples of what makes America great.
At the same time, we know that the numbers tell us that the most people don't escape bad neighborhoods or failing schools or damaged families and that while this social mobility is at the heart of the American Dream, it is in decline and we now rank below most other developed countries in class mobility.
Yet this discussion goes missing in an election cycle that will see more than a billion dollars spent trying to get our attention.
Beginning tonight, during the vice presidential debate, wouldn't it be nice to hear more from Vice President Biden on what it takes for a boy from Scranton to rise to national prominence? Wouldn't it be insightful to hear what Paul Ryan would do for other children being raised by a single parent like he was?
And next week, how refreshing would it be if we heard President Obama and Mitt Romney offer less abstract macroeconomic philosophy and more concrete kitchen table solutions?
We call our project The Invisible Dream not because the American Dream is disappearing but because we can't see what it's made of.
Until we can have a deeper and more nuanced conversation about what makes the American Dream not just possible but probable, we will continue to hear mentions of things like Big Bird as political punch lines instead of the teachable moments they could be.
Thursday, October 18th, 2012 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D. and Alison Kadlec
During our session, “Deliberative Democracy and Change Management,” we explored the intersection of these two domains. Both deliberative democracy and change management are designed to help people more thoughtfully navigate complex conditions—solving problems and negotiating change—and forge a better path forward.
We believe that each field has something to offer to and learn from the other. Our purpose in the NCDD session was to explore these possibilities and articulate how our work is being enriched by an investigation of the intersections and divergences between the two fields.
At the most basic level, deliberation is what should occur before a decision has been made and change management is what needs to occur after. This formula, however, only scratches the surface of how the two fields can enrich each other, and as yet there is a dearth of shared knowledge between them.
Deliberative democracy posits that anyone directly affected by an issue—be it, for example, patients, when it comes to health care cost control, or community residents, when it comes to transportation needs—deserves high-quality and meaningful opportunities to learn about and participate in charting a course forward on the issues that affect them. In practice, this work involves people talking together in authentic dialogue and deliberation, usually with facilitators and nonpartisan materials. When done well, deliberative democracy produces better and more sustainable solutions to our most difficult shared problems.
But even well-conceived decisions, derived from authentic dialogue and deliberation, do not implement themselves magically. Deliberation by itself doesn’t result in a map that tells us how to get from making a decision to taking action on that decision. This is where change management, along with the related offshoots of implementation science and improvement science, offer insights and practices that we find exciting and useful.
Thursday, October 4th, 2012 | Megan Rose Donovan
- Almost 9 in 10 respondents say that a strong work ethic is "absolutely essential" to achieving the Dream (86 percent of Democrats say this; 91 percent of Republicans).
- Eighty percent identify parents or other adults who teach honesty, responsibility and persistence as "absolutely essential." (83 percent of Democrats say this; 85 percent of Republicans).
- Seventy-seven percent identify good schools and teachers that ensure that every child has a fair chance to get a good education as "absolutely essential." (89 percent of Democrats say this; 68 percent of Republicans).
On Monday, during an event at the National Press Club, Public Agenda President Will Friedman and Director of Research Carolin Hagelskamp, along with GALEWiLL Center Executive Director Bob McKinnon, presented the survey, which is part of Following the presentation, a panel moderated by Juan Williams at the National Press Club dug deeper into the results. The panelists included Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, Robert Samuelson of The Washington Post and Hedrick Smith, author of Who Stole the American Dream? While Americans seem to agree on the foundation of the American Dream, it seems as though questions we've seen raised during the campaign—questions over the role of government and the quality of our nation's work ethic—also seem to extend into the American electorate. The findings suggest a stark divide in opinion on the level of government support for those pursuing their idea of the American Dream.
- Forty-two percent of respondents agreed that "achieving the Dream is mainly something people do for themselves—what government and communities do doesn't matter."
- Thirty-nine percent agreed with the statement "it's crucial for the government and communities to take steps so every child has a fair chance at the American Dream."
- Nineteen percent said neither statement reflected their views.
During the panel, Sawhill reconciled the public’s divided view of government assistance in pursuit of the American Dream by eliminating an either/or solution. “You need both. You need to work hard and you need to have values, but we don't live in a Horatio Alger society. Having a helping hand from the government should be part of the equation as well," she said.
Wednesday, September 5th, 2012 | Megan Rose Donovan
The U.S. spent nearly 20 percent of its GDP on health care last year, almost twice the amount spent by 30+ other countries, even as instances throughout the country have illustrated that higher costs do not necessarily translate into better quality. Even after the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is fully enacted, up to 30 million individuals will still be without coverage.
These questions of cost, accessibility and quality make the American health care system an incredibly complex problem with no easy solution. Meanwhile, neither presidential candidate has acknowledged the tradeoffs inherent in his health care reform plan.
"Health Care: A Citizens' Solutions Guide," provides voters with a firm understanding of the tradeoffs in order to create a more rational dialogue about health care reform. The guide helps citizens confront the reality of the situation, overcome wishful thinking, and thoughtfully choose the candidate that best reflects their values.
The release of this new voter guide includes an accompanying infographic, which you can download and print here.
It's clear that we still have a lot of hard decisions to make when it comes to fixing our nation's health care system:
- Employer contributions to health care have doubled in the last decade.
- Nearly 1 in 5 Americans reported serious financial problems due to family medical bills in 2010.
- Medicare enrollment will balloon from 47 million to 85 million in the next 25 years.
Going far beyond typical voter guides, "Health Care: A Citizens' Solutions Guide" not only helps citizens navigate the complex issues underlying our confusing health care system, it also carefully analyzes three legitimate policy approaches, along with arguments for and against each. This evenhanded analysis empowers voters to carefully weigh the consequences they're willing to accept and approach Election Day having properly examined our health care options.
Are you concerned about the nation’s health care future? We invite you to take some time to absorb a few aspects of the issue in the infographic to the left and share it with others. Let us know what you think. Join the conversation and tweet us at @PublicAgenda.
Thursday, August 30th, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo
But to determine the best way to tackle these challenges—overwhelming student debt, poor completion rates, threats to our leadership in science and technology, dismal civic education—we can't restrict the conversation to just leaders in education, politics and business. Everyday citizens—students, faculty, community members and others, including you—have a lot of important input. And it’s crucial for all of us to consider the choices and trade-offs we face in creating the kind of higher education system we want.
To this end, a new initiative from National Issues Forums and the American Commonwealth Partnership aims to bring citizens to the table to discuss how higher education can help us create the society we want.
"Shaping Our Future," launching next week, is a year-long national dialogue on the future of higher education. The initiative, which grew out of an earlier examination about the role of education in democracy, aims to give more Americans the chance to consider the challenges and choices we face in higher education, as well as the distinctive role they play in helping the country advance economically and socially.
The initiative kicks at 9 a.m. ET on September 4th, with a discussion at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, featuring, among others:
- Martha Kanter, U.S. Under Secretary of Education;
- Muriel Howard, President of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities;
- Bernie Ronan, chair, The Democracy Commitment;
- Kaylesh Ramu, president, Student Government Association, University of Maryland Baltimore County.
The discussion will be livestreamed, and you can watch it here.
Following the launch, in hundreds of communities around the nation, students, faculty and other citizens will come together over the following year to weigh different approaches to our higher education problems and seek common ground for action. Carleton College, Florida A & M, Franklin Pierce, Morehouse College, San Diego State University and the University of California at San Diego, Spelman College, The Citadel, and the University of New Mexico are just a few of the institutions that will be hosting these conversations.
The forums will explore questions such as how higher education can best work to ensure a highly skilled workforce to maintain the nation’s economic strength and competitiveness; promote equity by providing opportunities for all Americans; strengthen values such as responsibility, integrity, and respect for others; and develop skills to seek common ground or work through differences in a civil manner.
A citizen’s discussion guide, video discussion starter, moderator’s guide and other materials can be downloaded free of charge at the National Issues Forums website. Anyone interested in convening a forum should contact NIF president Bill Muse at email@example.com or Harry Boyte, the national coordinator for ACP at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friday, July 20th, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo
Far too often, even the most well-intentioned education policies fall short due to a lack of consideration for the views of teachers. Last Thursday, a new platform launched to help amplify teacher voice in education reform. #EdFix, a Twitter-hosted chat, aims to provide a space for teachers to talk about how they can help fix the education system and play a role in addressing the many sticky issues involved in doing so.
Public Agenda has worked to bring teachers (and lots of other stakeholders) to the table on K-12 education issues for decades. Our most recent effort, Everyone at the Table, a collaboration with American Institutes for Research, houses free resources designed specifically to engage teachers on teacher evaluation.
The absence of teacher voice is especially acute in evaluation reform, and we have seen the fall-out in districts across the country, where top-down evaluation plans have faltered due to unrealistic expectations or elements that are ineffectual or even controversial.
In our effort to get teachers to the table on evaluation reform, the kick-off chat for #EdFix focused on the issue. Darren Burris, Boston-based teacher and facilitator for the chat, asked the participating teacher Tweeters to share what worked in their particular evaluation plans and what didn’t, as well as what they wanted to be evaluated on and who they thought should do the evaluation.
Thursday, July 19th, 2012 | Megan Rose Donovan
Americans know the energy situation is serious, but a gap in understanding our energy options has created a challenge in decision-making. In 2009, a Public Agenda survey found nearly 4 in 10 Americans could not name a fossil fuel and nearly half could not name a renewable energy source.
Regardless of what we know or don’t know, Americans are anxious about our energy situation. Recent public opinion research suggests that about 90 percent are worried about gas prices and half think the U.S. will face a critical energy shortage in the next 5 years.
The good news is that the public doesn’t need to become experts on the matter in order to make informed decisions, though it is important to understand and weigh the tradeoffs.
Public Agenda has released “Energy: A Citizens’ Solutions Guide” to serve as an unbiased resource on the choices we must make in order to build effective energy policies. It provides essential facts about energy with generous consideration for three complex and intertwined elements: cost, energy security and environmental impact.
Are you concerned about the nation’s energy future? Are you ready to make your decision? We invite you to take some time to absorb a few aspects of the issue in the infographic to the left and share it with others.
Let us know what you think. Join the conversation and tweet us at @PublicAgenda.
Thursday, July 5th, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo
We can't let the Supreme Court ruling cloud the fact that we as a nation still need to have important conversations and make important decisions about health care. As Robert Frank recently opined in the Times, now that we’re on the other side of the court case, there is still a great deal of work to do as health care policy continues to “evolve.”
Among all of the ebbs and flows of the health care debate, and as the issue becomes more and more politicized in the media and within the Beltway, it's more urgent than ever that we have a real national dialogue about the values that we think our health care policies should reflect and how, practically speaking, we are going to make the system effective and sustainable.
How do we lower the cost of health care to our nation's citizens while simultaneously increasing access and assuring the quality of that care for all? That’s a hard circle to square, and we’ll have to negotiate many choices along the way. What tradeoffs will we need to confront and accept as we make those choices? Certainly there will be many as we seek to improve the system within the context of an aging population, a changing landscape of work and employment, unsustainable inflation of healthcare costs and unprecedented fiscal challenges.
Each election season, Public Agenda seeks to provide citizens with nonpartisan resources to help them examine the pros, cons and tradeoffs regarding the solutions to our nation's most pressing problems. We are currently hard at work putting together a Citizens' Solutions Guide on health care in time for this election cycle. It will be ready in mid-August, but until then, check out 2008's health care guide. Let us know: what would help you better understand where the candidates stand on health care and make the judgments you need to make as you head to the polls?
Thursday, June 28th, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo
Exploring the intersection of technology and the Internet with democracy and citizenship is central to the mission of Personal Democracy Media. During 2012's Personal Democracy Forum, the organization's annual conference, which took place this year in New York City in early June, leaders from fields including technology, digital media and strategy, journalism, and civic and public engagement convened to explore the power of the Internet in democratic decision making.
Many times in our work we've seen effective engagement help people break through deeply held ideological divisions to find common ground on shared values. The Internet is clearly playing an increasingly central role in politics, citizen engagement and the democratic process in general, but can it also become a facilitation space where the right and left can find common ground and coalesce?
During a breakout discussion session called "The Future of the Left-Right Internet Coalition," conference panelists delved into this question with optimism, regarding the Internet as a sort of sandbox where thoughtful deliberation and innovation can happen and where we can better engage people who typically have low levels of political participation.
"The Internet is a blessing to small-d democratic processes," said David Segal, a former Democratic legislator in Rhode Island and a central figure, with co-panelist Patrick Ruffini, in the fight against SOPA and PIPA.
Ruffini, a Republican, echoed the sentiment of his ally in the anti-PIPA movement, saying that the Internet provides a place where problems can be solved in collaborative and innovative ways, outside of the political system, because that system, as it exists, is ill-equipped for this sort of problem solving.
The Internet provides new opportunities for citizens to collaborate in the democratic decision-making process, and we have explored such opportunities in the past. But the Internet certainly changes fast—what are your favorite ways to incorporate digital technology and the Internet in collaborative decision making? Tweet us with your thoughts and ideas at @PublicAgenda, with the hashtag #techengage. Let's explore together how technology and engagement can intersect to improve our nation's political process.
Wednesday, June 27th, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo
In the last month alone, headlines from The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and The Atlantic have highlighted our nation's higher education crisis.
These same articles also sought out the view of students, citing Public Agenda's seminal 2009 report, "With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them," which remains a rare source illuminating students' attitudes on higher education.
Among the statistics these articles cite:
- Half of college dropouts said work was a major factor in their decision. (Public Agenda, 2009)
- Just about three out of every ten dropouts left with student loans. (Public Agenda, 2009)
But students don't just talk about the problem; they offer solutions - and we should listen to what they have to say.
Public Agenda has spoken to many of our nation's young adults, both those who graduated (we call them completers) and those who either didn't attend or failed to complete (non-completers), about what would help them overcome barriers to completion. We compiled their voices in an infographic, to start a conversation about solutions to our nation's higher education challenges.
What do you think about what students have to say? Can we incorporate the voice of every stakeholder to end the college completion crisis? Join the conversation: tweet us at @PublicAgenda with your thoughts.
If you would like a printable version of this infographic, you can download a PDF of it here.