When Steve Israel served in Congress during the Obama administration, he was tasked with researching what voters are concerned about, and on what political candidates should focus.
Among the most important findings: Tell candidates to stop using the phrase “American dream,” as it has no credibility.
Israel, now director of Cornell’s Institute of Politics and Global Affairs in New York City and a professor of practice in government, shared his thoughts as part of a panel discussion during “The State of the American Dream,” Feb. 6 in New York City, presented by the College of Arts and Sciences; the College of Human Ecology; and Cornell’s Northeast Corridor office of Alumni Affairs and Development.
More than 200 alumni attended the event, which was moderated by David Folkenflik ’91, media correspondent for National Public Radio and co-host and editor of “On Point,” from NPR and WBUR in Boston.
Hosts for “State of the American Dream” included Rachel Dunifon, interim dean of CHE, and Ray Jayawardhana, the Harold Tanner Dean of Arts and Sciences.
“I think there are subtle tensions over how we define the American dream,” Folkenflik said. “Is it that you will have every opportunity to prosper and succeed? Is it that every generation has the opportunity to do better than their parents? Or is it that I can be left alone and do life the way it makes sense to me?”
Kim Weeden, the Jan Rock Zubrow ’77 Professor of the Social Sciences, and Laura Tach, associate professor of policy analysis and management, joined Israel and Folkenflik to share their research as it relates to the American dream and talk about what the future might hold.
Despite much progress, Weeden said, the latest research indicates 43% of children born into the lowest economic bracket will stay there, and 40% of children born into the highest bracket will remain there.
“Kids from higher income families do better than kids from lower income families,” even if both children earn college degrees, she said.
Luckily, Weeden said, there is a surge of public interest and research into the causes and consequences of barriers to opportunity. The Center for the Study of Inequality’s minor in inequality studies has grown from 30 graduates in 2006 to 156 last year; classes focused on inequality are popular with students from all of Cornell’s schools and colleges.
Tach said she also feels optimistic when she meets with undergraduates. “Our undergraduates care deeply about social justice issues and have real ambition around this area,” she said.
Tach shared her research into the positive benefits of the earned income tax credit (EITC). Many of the parents in her studies struggle because they have seasonal positions – such as landscaping, construction or teachers’ aide – or they work in the service or retail sectors, where hours and income levels can vary week to week.
“Each month is a veritable juggling act,” she said, “as they try to figure out what they can pay and what they can let slide.”
While the EITC does help in some ways to provide families a step toward the American dream, Tach said, bigger changes are needed.
“There are still many jobs that offer wages too low to make ends meet,” she said. “And the holes that remain in our safety net present a key challenge to U.S. social and labor policy, and the American dream going forward.”
Israel agreed that policy changes and investments on the national level are needed to renew faith in the idea of the American dream. Historically, he said, investments in infrastructure and in the space program, the expansion of civil rights and voting rights, the impact of immigration – which brought waves of entrepreneurs to this country to create new businesses and opportunities – coupled with a sense of national purpose and national cohesion, all helped the country to boost its middle class.
“The American dream is elusive,” Israel said, “but when we commit ourselves to national purpose and hard work and some sacrifice, it is more of a reality.”
Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.