As Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke Friday about reviving the American Dream, about what it will take to restore what she called the “basic bargain” that hard work, effort and drive will lead to future success, I couldn’t stop thinking about a young woman named Contessa Allen-Starks.
Clinton spoke at the New America Foundation’s annual conference on “Big Ideas” held at the Newseum, in the heart of the Washington, D.C.’s gleaming federal city. (Full disclosure: I’ve been a fellow at the nonpartisan at New America fellow and spoke at the conference about my book on time pressure and our vanished leisure.)
Allen-Starks lives barely 15 minutes away by car, but her poor and troubled neighborhood across the Anacostia River might as well be a world away.
I met Allen-Starks when I reported about Rapid Rehousing, a new effort to help poor families move out of homeless shelters, become self-sufficient and break long cycles of generational poverty.
Allen-Starks was trying to do everything right. I spent the day with her, as she was up before dawn to get ready for an “externship” in a doctor’s office, in which she was paying thousands of dollars through a for-profit company that would result in a “certificate” that she hoped would mean something. She arranged for her two sons’ meals and child care, then boarded a bus, transferred to the Metro, and boarded another bus to get to that externship, her hope for a better and more stable job.
After a long day there, a long commute home, and a walk to a nearby grocery store, she put on a white lab coat and went to work at the pharmacy at a nearby grocery store. Although she loves the job, she has been stuck with low-paying, part-time hours for years.
She was working and studying seven days a week. And still, she was nowhere close to being able to pay the nearly $1,000 monthly rent on her small, two-bedroom apartment. (She later told me she fled the neighborhood with her boys after a shooting outside her front door.)
At the conference, Clinton said that history, civics and economics tell the story that the country thrives when the middle class is working and thriving and when those at the bottom believe they can move up — when all people have faith in a better future.
That, Clinton said, “is at the heart of the basic bargain of America. That everyone can have an opportunity to build a good life.”
Yet it’s no secret that The Good Life, especially for people like Allen-Starks, who dropped out of high school because it was so boring and she hated it, whose husband has been in and out of jail, and who desperately wants a second chance, is proving more elusive than ever.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D), the son of a single mother, who grew up on welfare on the South Side of Chicago, changed his life with education and belief in the American bargain. “I’m not supposed to be sitting here today,” said during a discussion later in the day. Low-income people today, he said, can no longer even imagine making the same leap from the bottom to close to the top that he did.
Clinton, in her speech, rattled off a list of worrisome statistics:
•Four out of ten children born into the lowest income families never climb out of relative poverty. “Forget about getting rich,” Clinton said, “it’s about getting into the middle class and staying there.”
•Canadians work fewer hours and get paid more, have a stronger social safety net and live longer than Americans.
•Low-income women with the least education are living shorter lives today than their mothers did, a troubling and rare life expectancy reversal not seen in any other advanced economy, save for Russian men after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
•A majority of African American children whose families fought their way into the middle class decades ago, now have lower incomes than parents did, and many are falling out of the middle class altogether.
•Since 2000, worker productivity has increased 25 percent, yet wages have remained stagnant for all but the very top 1 percent.
•Although women make up half the workforce, and about 40 percent are the sole or primary breadwinners for their families, many of are concentrated in low-wage jobs, like Allen-Starks. Three-fourths of all jobs that rely on tips are held by women. (The federal minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13.)
•And women, across the board, are paid less than men for the same work. (See Abramson, Jill. New York Times: let go, according to some reports, for demanding the same pay as previous male editors.)
Clinton asked the audience to imagine a single mother trapped by her circumstances. I thought of Allen-Starks, who was separated from her husband when I spent time with her.
“She has dreams. She certainly has dreams for her kids. But she doesn’t just face ceilings on her aspirations and opportunities. Sometimes it feels like the floor has collapsed beneath her,” Clinton said.
That, Clinton said, is not how it’s supposed to be in America.
No indeed. Feeling trapped, or hopeless, or in despair, goes against the grain in a country whose strength and exceptionalism has always stemmed from a combination of both the breadth of its dreams and its willingness to hard work hard to make those dreams come true for everyone.