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The concept of the American dream that people of any background have the opportunity to advance themselves, is directly challenged in this political cartoon. With abundant symbolism, the cartoon visually depicts the difficulty of moving between social classes in America. Three people are standing on the first of twelve floors, seeking to advance to a higher level, which represents social advancement to a higher social status. Each person represents a social class: the rich, the middle class, and the poor. Each of them has different resources to advance, and their ability to do so increases with their social class. Although the US tries to ensure social mobility, this cartoon suggests it is presently failing in that effort, and abundant research supports that idea. America has a rich history of people who have risen from poverty through their own efforts and use of resources available to them, but the availability of such resources has varied through time as political administrations and their respective policies have varied. Although our nation holds a central creed that any American has an equal opportunity to advance, this is simply not the case and changes need to be made to restore the American Dream.
The rich are represented in the cartoon by a luxuriously dressed man with a briefcase. He is the classic rich man; older and white, with heavily-styled gray hair. A wealthy background is certainly helpful in social advancement. According to Howard Friedman, a statistician and health economist for the United Nations, the actual data from economic studies “fly in the face of the American dream” and “point to a rigid and entrenched structure of wealth.” (Friedman) Wealth is generally transmitted in wealthy families, and the impoverished generally remain trapped in their social class as well. Professor Miles Corak, an economist at the University of Ottawa, says that “Family background plays more of a role in the US than in most comparable countries.” (DeParle) Even Canada has more right to claim it is a land of opportunity than the United States. Studies show that “the American man’s income is nearly twice as reliant on his father’s background as a Canadian man’s.” (Friedman)
The rich man stands in a polished golden elevator set in a marble wall with decorative trim. The doors are closing, and he is going up. His face is smug and he is clearly proud and pleased with his status. Advancement is a breeze for the rich man in the elevator. His pleasant situation exemplifies the ease with which the wealthy can further advance themselves financially and socially. The comparative luxuriousness of his situation represents the higher quality of life enjoyed by the upper class. This man seems far more content than any other figure in the cartoon. His position is enviable. Many would claim that every American can be like him with hard work, but this is increasingly untrue. The argument that America has fabulous social mobility and people can work their way up the social ladder with ease is rapidly dying, as evidence clearly shows otherwise. Isabel Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution says the fact that America has less social mobility than most other advanced countries is “becoming conventional wisdom” that people don’t argue with. (DeParle) Jason DeParle, a senior writer at The New York Times who won a George Polk Award for his reporting on welfare, points out that when many Americans “complain that the United States has unusually large income gaps” others counter that “the system is fair because mobility is especially high” and “everyone can climb the ladder.” (DeParle) But America is actually less mobile in addition to being less equal, and this results in a sorry state for many Americans in the middle and lower classes.
The middle class is represented in the cartoon by a professionally-dressed woman who is concentrating intently on her effort to advance. She seems hopeful and determined, but certainly has work ahead of her. It is possible for her to advance, but difficult. Her expression is one of determination, but she is definitely struggling. This woman’s quality of life is undoubtedly beneath that of the higher wage man. The middle class woman’s potential form of transport is a knotted rope, and it will be much more difficult for her to advance than the man with the elevator. The rope is also fraying, so she faces a higher risk of failure in her climb, just as the middle class place themselves at a higher risk when they make financial investments and expenditures than the rich do. The woman’s resource is severely lacking, and even with hard work and determination, it is likely she will fail. Although surveys of the American public show that “Americans have a greater faith in their country being a meritocracy than citizens of nearly every other country on earth,” the actual rate of persistence of poverty is much higher here than in other wealthy nations. (Friedman) Great Britain is famous for class constraints, but even as the US poses as the land of opportunity and claims to have a classless society, the level of disadvantage for our middle and lower classes is much higher than that of Great Britain. (DeParle)
The poor are represented in the cartoon by a young man of minority race. He lacks the professional attire of the other two, and wears a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. He is obviously from the working class. There are many examples of Americans who were born into the working class who rose to great wealth. One very American example is Henry Ford who created Ford Motor Company. Henry Ford was born on a farm in 1863. Instead of becoming a farmer he pursued an interest in machinery and went to work with steam engines, train car manufacturers, and various factories to learn as much as he could. Wages were such that he had time and money to tinker, and like many other innovators of that era, he spent it trying to invent a “horseless carriage” or car. Ford was eventually successful, and the Ford Motor Company’s unique philosophy is what sealed its success. Henry Ford wanted to create a better cheaper car for the masses, not just a luxury item, and began producing the Model T. He operated an enormous plant as one moving assembly line to lower cost and increase production, and dauntlessly doubled the wages of his 14,000 workers so they could buy the product they made. Prices dropped, sales soared, workers thrived, Detroit thrived, and Ford became one of the wealthiest people of all time, with a net worth more than twice that of Bill Gates. His example caught on, and a trend was set for the early twentieth century. Assembly-line production styles, and high wage, low-skill factory jobs became the norm. People flocked to the cities and were elevated into an ever-growing middle class. Huge numbers of low-skill workers led to industrial unionism and improved quality of life for thousands of people. (“Life of Henry Ford”)
Unlike Henry Ford, the lower class man pictured does not have the necessary resources for advancement available to him. All he has is a short wooden ladder with five rungs. This is enough to stay where he is, but nothing extra to advance, just as many Americans live from paycheck to paycheck with just enough to get by. This situation is created because wages are so low. Minimum wage has been stagnant for a long time. If the minimum wage had been adjusted since the late 1960s so that it kept up with inflation, it would currently be over seventeen dollars. (Kenny Yuko Interview) There is no reason wages and the quality of life for the lower and middle classes should have been better in the 1960s than it is now. Today, high wage, low-skill jobs are nearly impossible to find. Even living-wage low skill jobs are few and far between. Many minimum wage workers are living in poverty, despite working full-time, because minimum wage is not enough to meet their basic living expenses.
The poor man’s expression is one of confusion and helplessness. His feelings represent those of many poor Americans who don’t know where to turn. Comparatively speaking, there is actually less help for the poor in America than there is in other wealthy countries, leaving our poor even worse off. Scott Winship, a researcher at the Brookings Institution, says that “the bottom fifth in the US looks very different from the bottom fifth in other countries. Poor Americans have to work their way up from a lower floor.” (DeParle) The most obvious aspect of the poor man’s representation is the hopelessness and difficulty of his situation. Many lower class people today are struggling in similarly bleak situations. Single parents in the lower class are struggling to provide for their families, and independent people struggle to remain independent. Many workers are finding that wages are just too low to make ends meet. They cannot work enough to make the money they need, despite working two, or even three jobs.
The cartoon’s most striking feature is definitely the vast differences between its three characters, despite their coexistence in the same environment. The upper class man is so vastly ahead of the other two in quality of life, the cartoon’s message is obvious; something needs to be done to improve social mobility and the situation in which our lower and middle classes live. Some legislation currently being debated in Ohio provides hope for this situation. Senate Bill 25, “The Ohio Worker’s Rights Act” was introduced in the Ohio Senate earlier this year and proposes to raise the state minimum wage from $8.10 to $10.10 an hour. (“Senate Bill 25”) Senator Kenny Yuko explained in an interview his desire to raise the state minimum wage. ““It’s not your high-school kid looking for a part time job making minimum wage anymore, it’s your single moms. It’s a lot of adults that are over 20 years old, a lot of them working part time jobs, but a whole lot working full time. Sometimes it is a mom and dad working in concert with each other, sometimes both of them working minimum wage jobs, sometimes both of them working two minimum wage jobs, just to try to provide for their families. And this will give them the opportunity to do better for everybody.” (“Kenny Yuko Interview”) When asked how he would counter the argument that raising minimum wage will be a burden on businesses, Senator Yuko said, “They’re thinking they’re going to be forced to pay additional wages to their employees, and that’s something they don’t want to do. What they don’t recognize is the fact that in our communities, especially in our 25th Senate district, we’ve got so many of our constituents who are struggling to get by every single day. And also we’re going to give them an opportunity to earn, it’s just two dollars, but that two dollars over forty hours, week by week, is going to give them valuable dollars that they can spend right in their own communities.” (“Kenny Yuko Interview”) By Henry Ford’s logic, when the lower class earns more money, they will spend more money, and business will thrive. This legislation provides some hope for Ohio’s lower class and communities as a whole.
Success begins with opportunity, and Americans in the lower class need to be given the opportunity to succeed. Although there are a few modern stories of people who have risen from poverty to great wealth, this is usually done with an unconventional opportunity or resource; not with resources typically available to the general poor. America is just as capable as any other country, and there is no reason our citizens should have a lower quality of life than citizens of other wealthy nations. People working full-time jobs should not be living in poverty, and changes need to be made so Americans are once again able to advance to any social class through their own hard work and determination. Luckily we can look to the past and the present for solutions to our social mobility problem. We can improve the future of America, and restore the American Dream.
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