Reviving the American Dream: An Open Letter from a Disenchanted Millennial

Friday, May 8, 2020

Dear Reader,

I was born in 1995 in Davenport, IA. With an ethnically and economically diverse population of 100,000, my middle-of-the-nation hometown was in mays ways an American microcosm. Nonetheless, I experienced and thought little of this diversity in my early years. My parents, Eric and Teri, were accomplished white collar workers: my mother (Teri) a pharmacist, my father (Eric) a clinical psychologist. We lived in an all-white, newly constructed, middle-class to upper middle-class neighborhood in the city’s northern interior. Throughout our childhood, my sister and I never wanted for any material necessities: food, clothes, books, you name it. Even when I was diagnosed with a regressive neuromuscular condition, I could be sure that my $6,000 leg braces (AFOs) and expensive medical testing would be paid for without a hitch. We had a cedar fence and a big backyard. Years later, I moved to Bettendorf, IA and attended one of the whitest, wealthiest, and highest academically performing schools in the state. Undoubtedly, I have come from great privilege.

On a day-trip to Springfield, IL in 2002, I hope my father’s hand as he takes my picture.

My parents, however, did not come from such privilege. My mom was raised on a hardscrabble farm in southwest Iowa during the 1960s and 70s. Her father was a handyman-turned-mechanic, her mother a homemaker. During my mom’s childhood, she often wanted for new clothes, books, and all the exciting novelties and activities that my sister and I later came to take for granted. But she was intelligent and hardworking. As my mom tells it, she scratched her way out of her small farm town, studying for tests, reading books, and doing anything possible to ensure future prosperity, a life far-removed from Malvern, IA. At 18, my mom was awarded valedictorian of her high school class of 34 and then left to attend college in Iowa’s metropolis, Des Moines. After five years, she graduated college and became a board-certified pharmacist. In the years to come, after my mom paid her debts, she quickly came to know prosperity she in ways she never knew while living in southwest Iowa. My mother’s story matches the United States’ “Rags to Riches” narrative to a T.

My dad also lived a sort of “Rags to Riches” tale. He was raised in Rock Island, IL, a proud city of then 50,000 on the Mississippi River. Born to a traveling auto parts salesman and a part-time substitute teacher and housewife, he lived in a 1100 square-foot post-war ranch with his parents and two siblings, at least until the older two moved out. His father, my grandfather, used the family’s only car for work during the week. On weekends, my dad and his dad enjoyed the simple pleasures of father-son bonding: canoeing, hiking, archery, home repair, and eating ice cream. By all accounts, then, my dad lived his early years in a lower middle class to middle class household. But then, tragically, things changed: my grandfather died at age 49, when my dad was 11. Over the coming years, my dad lived with his grief-stricken-turned-briefly-alcoholic mom. The going was rough. Money wasn’t prevalent, but somehow, he and his mom got by.

Years later, after graduating from high school, college, and seminary, my father found himself in an equally harrowing situation. At 35, my dad was poor, divorced, and yet again seeking higher education—this time a Doctorate of Psychology. For a while, he lived in a brownstone dive in central Illinois, while also commuting to and from Chicago for school. Between long hours driving, poverty, and trying to be attend to his young child in Peoria, I don’t know how he did it. But he did. And after a few years of grit and much help, my dad worked his way out of poverty—attaining a new degree, a new job, another family, and his first home. Therefore, until nearly 40, my dad became accustomed to the unpredictable ebb and flow of fortune and finance. He had been on both sides of this line throughout his life, but has been yet to return there since his major pivot in the early 1990s.

Both of my parents have lived “Rags to Riches” tales. They overcame financial hardship and (inter)personal struggle, acquired higher education, and attained lucrative jobs. In doing so, they acquired nice homes and reliable vehicles, saved money, superseded their parents’ socioeconomic positions, and were able to provide for their children’s every material need—not the least of which were my sister and I’s robust educations. To be sure, I am truly grateful and blessed for my parents’ individual and collective grit and hard work. Without their efforts, I would not be where I am today. However, I have become increasingly aware of how their lived realities are and always will be different from my own. While I live a life of utter privilege, I am also witnessing the disappearance of opportunities that once existed to my parents and people of their generation, albeit opportunities that have long been kept out of reach for people of color in this country.

As a child, my parents’ success narratives became engrained into my conscious and subconscious minds. Their stories communicated to me that, to be successful, I needed to supersede the accomplishments and challenges they had. Though, for a while, it remained unclear which scale or rubric I needed to use to measure success, my surroundings spoke for themselves. Success meant receiving fancy degrees, enjoying big salaries, working a job in STEM, living in a large house, being strong and fully able-bodied, and—if we’re being completely honest—having white skin. Even if there were plenty of East and South Asian children and families who had achieved success as my peers and, then, I viewed it, these children and families did little challenge the engrained notion that whiteness equals success and beauty. Therefore, my town and my school district were latently and, sometimes, not so latently racist in the same ways most white Americans and American places are.

[If you are annoyed or angry now, please hold on. Sometimes reading things that make us feel uncomfortable is exactly what we need to do.]

My family and I on vacation at Mount Rushmore in 2010.

Over time, I came to view these privileges, success as it was portrayed, as entitlements and forgone conclusions. Mentors verbally and actively communicated to me that, if I was bright (which I am), busted my butt, and continued to be the kind person I am, “everything” would work out for me. Again, I would have to work hard for all this, but working hard was nothing new. So, as I entered my first year at Augustana College, I expected success to gravitate to me. Why wouldn’t it? After all, all of those privileges had been gifted to or achieved by my parents, my mentors, and other adults nearby. Thus, in 2014, there was no indication that my life would shape out differently than I imagined…

But boy, I was mistaken! Throughout my four years of college and two years since, I have grown not into the person I wanted to be, but the person I needed to be. I have continually learned to be honest with myself about my weaknesses and shortcomings. Doing so allowed me to find a more suitable college majors (history and geography, instead of pre-medicine and biology) and to begin living a healthier life—my life. And for this, I feel truly grateful. Nonetheless, this time has also educated me about the unfair social and financial realities my generation has inherited. To name a few:

  • In visiting the Gulf Shores of Louisiana, I learned about sea level rise, hypoxic zones, coastal erosion, and environmental racism. (Yes, this is a real thing. If you don’t believe me, then look up “Cancer Alley.”)
  • By managing depression, anxiety, and a degenerative neuromuscular condition (CMT), I have learned about the mile-wide gaps, inefficiencies, and inequalities in our health care system. After petitioning my healthcare system for months, I miraculously received $8,000 in financial assistance for my medical bills. Without it, I would be flat broke now and for a while to come.
  • While reading Evicted (2016), The Color of Law (2017), White Fragility (2019), and There Are No Children Here (1991), and listening to hundreds of hours of podcasts on Reconstruction, race and the Civil Rights Movement, I have learned about the ongoing plight of African-Americans and people of color nationwide. Each year, progress from the Civil Rights Movement continues to become rolled back. Whether you believe it or not, practically every major sector of the American life is steeped in white supremacy, seen and unseen. And this problem is not getting better: it’s getting worse.
Evicted by Matthew Desmond. PC: Amazon
  • In graduating college, I have learned what it is like to have student loans ominously hanging over one’s head. The resultant anxiety is real and, for many, indefinitely lasting. I am a full-time-working, bright, college-educated adult, yet until recently, I was just barely breaking even: paying out nearly as much for my expenses and debts as I earn in a month.
  • Also, in being a full-time-working adult, I have learned and lived the reality of wealth inequality. Supply and demand indicate that society needs my services but remains unwilling to pay me enough so that I can survive and start to develop much of a savings. Apparently rapacious CEOs are worth 100s-1000s of times more than me. Who knew?! Laws, regulation, and top-down greed have facilitated this.
  • Finally, I have witnessed the proliferation of “fake news” and the complete devaluation of truth by large sectors of the country. Any more, truth is just whatever one wants to believe. And frankly, this scares the shit out of me!!

Again, this a short list. I see these as some of the main issues, but surely, they are not the only ones. Nonetheless, I do not wish to solely critique our current societal issues. We need solutions in addition to criticisms. And right now, we seem to have much more of the latter than the former. So, let me posit some potential and attainable solutions to major societal problems. They are as follows:

  • Create a modern-day Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to replant and remedy environmentally-damaged and polluted landscapes. As part of this, workers would receive stipends for a four-year college education or trade school.
Members of the CCC work to prevent soil erosion in the 1930s. PC: NPS
  • Rebrand trade schools as positive and viable options for high school students
  • Conduct studies on workers’ wages and re-establish a national minimum wage standard that annually readjusts for inflation. Minimum wage has not increased since July 2009.
  • Incentivize housing developers to create affordable housing on a much larger scale. Lack of affordable housing is one of the largest problems facing the Unites States today. However, most American places lack adequate contractors and financial resources to build enough affordable housing. Counterintuitively, the Department of Housing and Development (HUD) often hinders and complicates affordable housing development, too.
  • Re-adjust middle and high school curriculums to meet current and predicted economic demands. Leaders in secondary and higher education need to address what the purpose of education should be for students of varying aspirations.
  • Establish universal healthcare
  • Encourage and incentivize denser urban development over urban expansion (sprawl)
  • Require high school students to learn about Reconstruction (1865-1877), not just the Civil War. Students should learn about the unprecedented freedoms enjoyed by African-Americans before these freedoms were rolled back with the rise of the KKK and the establishment Jim Crow laws.
Emmett Till was lynched by white men in 1955, after he was accused of whistling at a white woman in Money, MS.
PC. Biography.com
  • Similarly, students should learn about the 1965 Voting Rights Act and how these civil rights have been chipped away by none other than the Supreme Court.
  • Encourage strong community development by rebranding and repurposing public spaces, such as libraries and parks.
  • Pay educators more
  • Re-define and establish national prison sentence terms and conditions. Substitute rehab, case management, volunteering, and restorative justice programs for minor criminal offenses, especially drug charges.
  • Abolish the bail bonds system. Stop imprisoning people because they are poor.
  • Incentive the use of recycled plastic over new plastic. Tax the production of new plastic.
  • Establish congressional lobbying ceilings for Big Pharma
  • Remove judicial loopholes that divert wealth away from workers to the pockets of the wealthiest investors.
  • Support local farmers over big agriculture
Fresh vegetables. PC. Duluth News Tribune
  • Divert surplus and soon-to-be-thrown-out food to hungry stomachs. The last time I checked, 40% of the United States’ food is thrown out. 40 Percent! No one should go hungry. Ever.
  • Beginning in kindergarten, teach mindfulness, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and important life skills to students. Children need to learn how to proactively promote positive mental health and interactions with others.

***

In writing this open letter, I hope to get everyone think about WHERE we are and WHO we are now. This is an important time in our country’s history, one in which, I believe, we are all being forced to reckon with the greedy, inefficient, and unequal systems we’ve created and acted complicit with. I don’t aim to be my generation’s Frederick Jackson Turner, claiming that the American Dream is dead, but I do wish to suggest that the American Dream is on life support. And WE all must do something now to inject life and hope into the narrative and promise most of us hold so dear.  

As I look at our great country—a land born mainly of immigrants, elbow grease, tremendous sacrifice, and sadly, of inequality—I recognize that we have been authored not just of rugged individualism, but of strong societies and communalism (not communism). Without strong and competent government, the United States would not have penned the Constitution or become known “The Land of Opportunity.” In other words, strong government has always been a determinant of our democracy’s functionality. Whatever advancements and financial gains American individuals have made—now and throughout our 250-year history—thus have directly followed the coat tails of lawmakers and financial powerbrokers.

The U.S. Constitution was signed and written in 1787.
PC: Harvard Law School

You may feel happy with our country as it is. But I’m not! Positive change shouldn’t happen; it must happen. And soon.

As a child, I used to believe the world owed me something. I believed I would one-up my parents, because naturally that was just the trajectory of our country’s history. Now, I laugh at this notion, because I realize that I am materially entitled to nothing. That said, I believe every American, myself included, is entitled to a chance to achieve their dreams and provide for their and their loved ones’ needs. These chances must be bolstered and facilitated by robust systems that afford reasonable social support and ensure equal opportunities for all. Too many Americans are living in a time dominated by ME-centered thinking instead of WE-centered thinking. As in, WE can create something greater, something more equal if WE work together.

If you are reading this and still don’t believe, then think about these final propositions. Do you really think that executives’ lives are more important than the lives of those who clean their offices or pick their food? Do you really think white people are truly more important than everyone else? Do you think truth matters? And finally, do you think I or anyone else should have to decide between receiving proper medical care and living in the red?

If not, then you and I—WE—have some changes to make.

5 thoughts on “Reviving the American Dream: An Open Letter from a Disenchanted Millennial

  1. Most of what you say I totally agree with. Greed is definitely the worst problem we have in the United States. Most of US money in hands of small percentage of people who never have enough millions. The lady in charge of US education kas a separate yacht for each of the great lakes. Pharmaceuticals are cost prohibited because our national law makers are being paid to keep this cost so high. I am about to turn 78 and in my old age think we should no have stocks because those rich CEOs you talk about keep there high income making sure stock holders are happy not by paying there employees or making sure they but out a quality product be it tangible or serveses. Glad to hear you are doing OK. Still leaving near your mother? Hope your sister is doing well as well. I hope you and those of your generation of like mind can cause the changes you discussed. I do believe people of color have not been treated fairly but actually I believe it is not someone’s skin color but how much money they are worth or can get their hands on that separate the haves from have nots. My patients use to tell me if Congress retirement plan was social security and there heath insurance was Medicare that wod be a good beginning. Be happy Ben. Say hi to your dad if you get a chance. Stay safe.

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    1. I definitely share many of your sentiments, Patricia! You must be a reader, too. Every time I read your comments, I think about how informed your perspectives are. It would be fun to have a conversation with you sometime!

      I am doing well, still living with my mom in South Dakota. The weather has been super nice recently, and that has definitely helped with social distancing:) My family is well. Each of us is merely trying to stay healthy and happy during this time. What have you been doing to stay busy recently?

      Sending my best.

      Ben

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      1. I recently retired and moved to the state of Washington. Love Washington not so much loving retirement. To keep busy I have taken up food growing as my Gardening. Starting from seeds. Following great gardeners on You Tube. I started in January with growling etc. Now it seems like I have some foresight as in Washington state we are experiencing produce shortages. We eat a plant based diet and I prepare all food from scratch even our dog food so lake of produce could be a problem. I also make all presents for adult children significant others and grand children like quilts and school bags for this past Christmas. Your father and I use to have some great TALKS. Those I miss but cherished the memories. So happy he has found happiness again. Great hearing from you. Happy you are with your mom. Where is Meredith and is she working? I always hope for the best for both of you. Does any one still keep a Facebook presence? I use to see pictures of your smiling faces but not so much anymore. Stay safe and happy. Are your experiencing many new problems with your CMT? Are symptoms increasing? I am a doctor and treated some patients with CMT and understand some of your difficulties. I had understood from your dad (at the time) it had stabilized. Like I remember when you found out (probably when you were 15 or 16) that you did not (at that time) need to modify a car to drive it. Is that still the case? Hope so. Now I am really signing off. Until later. Say hi to your dad for me if you have a chance.

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  2. Ben, I always enjoy reading your thoughts. You are so honest. Your generation is going through so many changes. Life was much easier in the sixties. I think a lot about how life will be for you and your cousins, my grandkids. Take care and I love you.
    Aunt Mary

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    1. Thanks for your kind thoughts, Aunt Mary Lou! I am definitely trying to balance my writing between the serious and the lighthearted. That said, I find that many people, Boomers in particular, do not understand the world my generation and I live in…

      Are you still working? Or have you been staying home?

      Sending my love to you at this time:)

      ~Ben

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