This Memorial Day Weekend, my Sunday brunch date informed me halfway into the meal that he had just donated plasma because he needed gas money to make it to our meeting. It is part of a standard routine, he admitted, a way to make twenty-five dollars when he’s completely broke. He’s a twenty-something married father of two. He finished high school but ended-up struggling to pay for a much too expensive for-profit college because the community college classes were so impacted at the time it was hard to get the courses he needed.
The fact that he even finished high school is impressive considering his childhood. While other teenagers were enjoying their lives in stable households sheltered from the challenges of adult life, he was literally living in a shelter taking care of his younger brother. Both weren’t yet sixteen. He is one of the have-nots Robert Putnam laments about in his book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, and while this young man believes in the promise of upward mobility – the ethos of the American Dream – he has always seemed to find it fleeting at best and an unwakeable nightmare at worst.
I watched him so irritated by the bandage that protected his blood-donating puncture wound that he eventually ripped it off in front of me. I couldn’t help but think of my meeting just days earlier with a couple, both Inland Empire residents, whose personal net worth is in the billions. They weren’t born into tremendous wealth, but they were also not born into extreme poverty. They were also born during a time, Putnam found in his research, when socioeconomic mobility seemed to be unusually high, because economic growth and educational expansion allowed exceptional upward mobility. Now, he says, upward mobility is a national myth and there is instead a ballooning economic gap divided among class lines in very separate and unequal worlds.
We began this week commemorating Memorial Day, a time to remember those men and women who served and gave their lives to protect our democracy and the freedoms it provides. Unfortunately, the growing economic opportunity gap is causing a growing gap in our democracy. Polls have shown that college educated youth are 2-3 times more likely to vote than high school graduates. And studies have also shown that the rich are more confident that they can influence government and that the poor are less likely to try. If the essence of democracy is equal influence on public decisions, as Robert Dahl suggests in his book On Democracy, then much like the American Dream, that democracy is not a promise for all, only a wealthy few. Perhaps that’s why we are seeing a growing discontent not only with our two-party system but the overall economic and political system.
Ironically, the reason for our Sunday brunch meeting was a debrief of our own efforts to get the have-nots engaged in the democratic process through voter registration and civic engagement. He was proud that we registered 50 new voters at our last event. As cringe-worthy as the current presidential race can be, I hope that in the end the issues that have become an important part of our public dialogue – reforming a system that seems to benefit the haves over the have-nots – is not only the legacy we remember, it’s the legacy we live.