Saturday, February 02, 2008

Michigan, Social Inequality, and Rugged Individualism

I can remember an undergraduate class I had on social inequality. I recall one student's explanation for unequal opportunities, one you hear often. Some people still don't understand the main point.

Its not that we all have good opportunities available as Americans, but it’s the scarcity of these opportunities in select socioeconomic areas that is important. Understanding that things are different in less fortunate areas is the key to understanding social inequality and the farce of the Horatio Alger Theory.

The student in my class wanted to claim that universal equal opportunity already exists throughout America. He used, as an example, his own experience of how much money he made running a lawn care business in high school. He said he had no problems finding work, building accounts, and maintaining the reputation of a professional entrepreneur. He believed that work can always be found if you want to work, and generally for those who are poor, it's their own fault. It turns out this individual grew up in the Grosse Point Shores area of Michigan; know as an upper class aristocratic area north of Detroit.

Where people live and parent's income does have an impact on an individual's upper mobility, and opportunities that are available. It helps explain statistically the probability of success for most young people. Going from rags to riches is harder to do than going from rich to richer. In fact, it's rare to see a large number of our inner city youth make it to the top.

So, when we visit the polls or engage in political arguments, remember the explanation for poverty like the one mentioned by the undergraduate in my class. The one that claims rugged individualism is all that matters -- that poverty is the fault of the individual alone.

Of course, striving for a better life and working to achieve it are part of the American Dream. But please understand that not everyone is gifted, wealthy, had responsible parents, were talented, or even mentally stable from growing up underprivileged. Poverty and homelessness are not excusable nor can they be pushed aside by explaining that people are just lazy. Decades of studies in the social sciences have provided us with empirical evidence to suggest otherwise. These studies conclude that the social and political arrangements of society maintain such a balance between rich and poor.

Now, in this great state the divide between our citizens is becoming more apparent. Social inequality has finally emerged in this election to be a serious challange, a reality that we cannot avoid, nor should we hide from. We need to develop a collective understanding that rugged individualism is a major part of the American work ethic, but at the same time it is not a good explanation for social inequality and poverty in Michigan.

We have to take this new understanding to the polls and vote democratic for a change that invites all citizens to a life with more available opportunities. This election is not just about you or me -- it's about all of us.

Andrew Thibodeau
Political Advisor for the ICDP

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