American Dream Denied

Fighting the War at Home

By E.A. Rohrbach-Perry

You remember The American Dream: that a poor child could grow up to be president; that the government would ensure every one of us an equal chance to receive a quality education; and that everyone could, with a little work, get a good job, buy a house, put their children through college and save some money for retirement.

Somewhere around the '80s many of us realized that The Dream had died and we were left with a cynical reality: Those who are rich will get richer and those who are poor will get poorer. Presidents, like most politicians, come from parents wealthy enough to pay for law school education and social structures that can fund multi-million dollar campaigns. Even retirement comes easier to CEOs than to the employees whose stocks they vandalize and even government sponsored retirement benefits may not be there for all of us.

But amazingly, in spite of all economic evidence to the contrary, The Dream still lives. It lives among people who don't stand a chance of reaching it; people who -- due to their place of birth, their education, their health, their intelligence, or their race -- are not within reach of The Dream.

It survives in the minds and hearts of people like Mary -- people who work hard, strive to improve themselves, and fully expect to realize The American Dream. She's one of a dozen people in north-central Pennsylvania who were interviewed about their work experiences, about what employment means to them, and about their hopes for meaningful labor.

Mary (not her real name), in her mid-thirties, with five children, believes in The Dream. She's never before had a problem getting a job. She went to business school, was trained in basic computer operations. And each time she's had a job, she's educated herself about all aspects of the job. She's even learned the jobs of her co-workers in hopes that those skills would help her get another job in the future.

She likes the responsibility of work, and the pride of having a job, and the self-esteem she gets from being a taxpayer, a part of the working class. When she's unemployed, like now, she's bored, feels like she's losing time. "It's depressing," to look for work in today's job market, she says, but she has a strong will and a strong mind: "Where one door closes, another opens."

The Dream may be getting further away but Mary is still sure it's attainable.

Amazingly, The Dream also survives among those who don't have Mary's drive or training or work ethic. People like Jason, for example. Another Pennsylvanian interviewed last fall, Jason has a 10th-grade education, a felony conviction and AIDS -- as he puts it: "I've messed up." He'd be happy to have his job back at the car wash but even that wouldn't pay enough to support himself and the two teenage daughters he's raising alone.

He wants to provide for them so that they can finish school but he's worried about not finding a job. Heightening his panic is the knowledge that his time is running out. He will only get sicker as the days go by; already there's a care-giver visiting him while the girls are in school.

Jason doesn't expect to realize The American Dream. He can't imagine owning his own home, having a car in the garage or a savings account in the bank. But he still believes in The Dream enough to hope that his daughters will have a better chance at it than he's had.

While The Dream is still living on, it may be facing its most dangerous opponent yet. What cynicism, racism, classism, and corruption have not been able to kill, an impending war and its accompanying effect on the nation's economy may completely destroy.

For a previous generation, war meant an exodus of adult men from factory work. Those jobs were then available for the chronically unemployed. War increased the demand for manufactured goods, which again increased job availability, improved the bottom line of manufacturing companies, and stoked the stock market.

Today, the composition of the military, the work force, and the economic foundation of the country have all changed. What happened during past wars will not happen this time.

The military today is made up of volunteers -- professional soldiers rather than factory workers drafted into service -- who don't leave full-time jobs behind when they go to war. While reservists are being called up who do leave job openings behind, they are much fewer in number than the drafted workers of previous wars.

The work those reservists do is different, as well. There are more workers in technology today than in factory work -- the jobs that may open up due to war will require skilled employees. People like Jason don't have the skills to take on those jobs.

Finally, the economic foundation of the nation today is based on information and service rather than produced goods as it was in the past century. These are areas which will not find an increase in demand in a time of war. In fact, the opposite will be true; industries such as travel and entertainment, already suffering post-9/11, will find their business further reduced and more people will find their way into the ranks of the unemployed.

War in the 21st century will not improve our country's economic state nor its employment situation. People like Jason and Mary, who barely survive in good economic times, will find themselves in even more desperate straits, with The American Dream even further out of reach for them and for their children.

To bring The Dream back within reach, our government will need to increase spending on domestic programs. It will need to give additional attention to those program which support people with the least ability to care for themselves and their families. Programs like education, adult job training, and child care will need an influx of funds. The government will also need to bolster programs like affirmative action, review the minimum wage laws, and revise health care coverage.

Unfortunately, those are the very programs which have become least popular in the past few years. They are also the programs most likely to be ignored or cut as money in the federal budget is diverted into the war chest. But they are also the programs that could keep The American Dream from becoming just a memory.

It was too good a dream to give up so easily.

This is the first in a series of articles addressing the need for domestic programs in the current economy. Perry, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, is a United Methodist minister in Central Pennsylvania. Email her at

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