Is the sun setting on the American dream?
LAST MONTH Kansas City unveiled plans to create a new attraction. The National Museum of Suburbia will allow visitors to wander through a re-created ranch-style home, peep through a white picket fence and spy on fake neighbours played by actors. There will also be a bowling alley for visitors to play on, along with exhibits of suburban and middle-class life.
“For many, suburbia equates to the American dream, a hopeful vision with roots dating to the Great Depression,” reads a promotional brochure. “It is a dream of home ownership and better opportunities for one’s self and one’s children.”
The timing seems apt, for in the United States today there is gnawing uncertainty and anxiety about what future awaits the country’s middle class.
As the presidential election barrels towards its conclusion next week, many of the bedrock assumptions of American life – that hard work yields rewards, that responsibility will be rewarded and that a brighter tomorrow lies around the corner – are being shaken.
A rapid fall-off in well-paid manufacturing jobs, replaced by low-paid service-industry jobs with fewer healthcare or pension benefits, means many citizens are falling behind and social mobility is stalling. For a slim majority, Americans now define success as “not falling behind”.
The Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns have been bombarding swing states, such as Ohio, with messages about protecting the middle class and leading the country on the path to prosperity.
Barack Obama has tried to connect with voters on the bases that “we’re better together” and that stronger safety nets are better for society.
Mitt Romney’s vision is that tax cuts and less regulation are the way to rekindle the fire of the American dream.
Yet neither candidate has really faced up to the full scale of the challenge facing the US. It’s as if the nation requires ongoing reassurance that the country’s values and successes are extraordinary and that the American dream remains intact.
It might explain an aching nostalgia for a time when days seemed brighter, work was better paid and affluence was a possibility for all. What better way to do this than encase that way of life in a museum for visitors of the future to admire?
TOM GAULRAPPnever thought it would come to this. But on Monday, the day before the presidential election, he is due to be laid off after 33 years of work. He has been working for Sensata Technologies in Freeport, Illinois, which makes motor sensors. The company is profitable, but the owners stand to make more money by shifting the work to China.
Gaulrapp is used to earning a fairly decent wage of about $18 an hour, or $40,000 (€31,000) a year. Now he fears scrabbling to find a low-paid job on half those wages. The only saving grace, he says, is that he doesn’t have children to support. “If all of this continues we won’t have any middle class left,” he says. “All that we’re left with are minimum wage jobs with no benefits.”
He isn’t alone. While most jobs lost during the recession have been in the midrange of wages, most of those added during the recovery have been in low-paid areas of work. It’s part of a long-term trend that some refer to as a hollowing out of the workforce. “We don’t just have a jobs deficit; we have a good-jobs deficit,” Annette Bernhardt, a policy codirector at the National Employment Law Project, told reporters recently.