Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute. He received his A.B. and Ph.D. from Harvard University and his M.P.A. from the Kennedy School of Government. In 2012, he was a recipient of the Bradley Prize. He is the author of several books, including The End of North Korea, The Poverty of the Poverty Rate, and Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis.
Both of my parents were born into difficult circumstances. My father lost his mother as a young boy and had to quit school so he could go to work. My mother was raised by a disabled father who struggled to provide for his seven daughters.
When they were young, they had dreams for their future. My father wanted to be a successful businessman. My mother wanted to be a famous movie star. But like most people who have ever lived, they were born into societies where the dreams of people like them didn’t stand a chance.
They felt trapped in their circumstances, frustrated by the inability to improve their lives. And so they came to the one place on earth where how you start out in life does not determine how you end up: the United States of America.
They never became wealthy here either; they worked service jobs at hourly wages. They never had a maid at their house; my mother was one for a living. And they didn’t have fancy cars; my father drove the same ‘73 Chevy Impala for 20 straight years. Yet I consider my background to be one of great privilege.
I was privileged to be raised in a stable family. Privileged that my parents had jobs that allowed them to provide for their children. And I was privileged to be born in a land of equal opportunity, the one place on earth where the son of a bartender and maid could achieve the same things as a son of a president or a millionaire.
I come from privilege because – while the hope of a better life is a universal one – it is also one few people ever get the chance to achieve. We are blessed to live in a country on whose cornerstone is etched the principle that all people have a God given right to go as far as their talent and effort will take them. And because here, so many people have been able to achieve the universal dream of a better life, this dream has come to bear our name: The American Dream.
For most, this Dream has never been about becoming rich or famous. It is about having a good job that pays enough to own a home, feed your family, and save for retirement; the flexibility to work and spend time with your family; the freedom to worship as you please and live without fear for your family’s safety; and ultimately, it’s about giving your children the opportunity to have a life better than your own.
The American Dream holds us together as one people. It defines us as a special nation. We can overcome bad presidents, tough economies and divisive issues. But if we lose the American Dream, we will lose our identity. There cannot be an America without the American Dream. That is why the greatest crisis before us today is that millions of our people feel that this Dream is slipping away.
The American Dream is still attainable. But it has gotten increasingly difficult to achieve for far too many. Wages have stagnated; everyday costs have risen; industries that once flourished have dried up, their jobs shipped overseas or lost to automation; and millions go to sleep each night overcome with the sense that they are one bad break from financial ruin.
Over the last six years, this insecurity has coiled itself around people from all walks of life. But it has been particularly difficult for three sets of Americans.
First, our more than ten million single mothers. Many have been abandoned by the father of their children, left to face the struggles of parenthood alone. Many are stuck in jobs with low wages and inflexible work hours. At every turn they feel like the deck is stacked against them.
Their everyday costs rise while their paychecks remain stagnant. They lose jobs because after school care closes in the early evening and they can’t work late. They feel guilty that they can’t afford and don’t have the time to sign their children up for soccer or dance like other kids. And they feel helpless to get their children out of failing schools.
We also see the erosion of the American Dream in the lives of many young Americans, including recent college graduates. Their generation is coming of age in an era of lowered expectations, where too often their caps and gowns come not just with hope and excitement but also with dread and apprehension.
Many did everything they were told was necessary to succeed. But now they sit in their childhood bedrooms under the weight of thousands in student loan debt, unable to start a career or a family.
Finally, we see the rising struggles of our working class families. Parents who work longer and harder than ever, yet fall further and further behind. Workers who search in vain for the good jobs that once supported their families. And small business owners on the verge of losing what they fought their entire lives to create.
For millions of single parents, young Americans, and working families, the promise that hard work and perseverance would lead to a better life has gone unfulfilled. As a result, too many are starting to believe the American Dream is no longer possible for people like them.
The erosion of this Dream is not simply the result of a Great Recession. It is primarily the result of a rapid and disruptive transformation of our economy driven by automation and globalization.
There was once a time when we were one of the few developed economies in the world. But now there are dozens of developed economies that have lowered taxes and cut regulations in an effort to attract job-creating investments away from us.
There was once a time when people like my parents, with limited formal education, could still find jobs that paid enough to make it to the middle class. But now because of advances in technology, virtually all good jobs require a level of education beyond high school.
But instead of adjusting to the realities of this new era, many of our institutions are failing us – and none more so than our federal government.
Instead of attracting jobs to our shores through simplifying taxes and regulations, it imposes higher taxes and more regulations that push investment and innovation to other countries.
Instead of anti-poverty programs that promote work and education so our people can emerge from poverty, we pump more money into programs that have failed us for a half century.
Instead of taking steps to make higher education more available and more affordable, we pour resources into a system that is expensive, inaccessible and is graduating too many people with unemployable degrees.
And instead of modernizing our retirement programs to make them accessible to everyone, we put more money into unsustainable programs that were designed in the 1930s.
The result is that a growing number of people feel completely alienated from our government and its leaders. They feel as if no one here in Washington understands what they are facing and no one here has answers to their challenges.
So it should be no surprise that disapproval of our government and pessimism about the direction of our country have reached an all-time high. Because the inability of our leaders to respond to the challenges and the opportunities of the 21st century is denying a growing number of people access to the American Dream.
President Obama deserves credit for hosting a summit earlier this week focused on helping working families. But the ideas he offered are more symbolic than they are substantive. They do not go far enough. Up to this point, his plan to restore the American Dream has been an old and familiar one: raise taxes, create more regulations, pour more money into government programs, and accuse anyone who doesn’t agree with him of not caring.
The globalization and technological advances that are changing our economy produce disruptive challenges. But they also present exciting opportunities: the opportunity to innovate faster and in more areas than ever before, the opportunity to sell the products we make and the services we provide to more people in more places than ever before.
This new century can also be an American Century, with the American Dream within reach of more people than ever before. But our current path – the path of the old and tired ideas of big government – this path will never lead us to that better future.
To restore the American Dream, we need a new policy agenda designed specifically for the 21st century. A limited government and free enterprise movement that applies the principles of our founding to the challenges and opportunities facing Americans in their daily lives.
Americans like Kristeen, a young single mother of two preschool-aged girls.
Kristeen lives in Florida and is the primary provider for her two daughters. She works at a pet boarding facility making $370 a week after taxes. Daycare for the girls costs $235 a week, which she says is about like signing over a paycheck every month.
She knows the key to a better job is acquiring new skills, so she started taking online courses in early childhood education. She hoped this would lead to a higher salary and more time with her daughters. But like millions of other Americans, our outdated higher education system left Kristeen unable to finish.
The online classes she had been taking cost her around $1200 per course. Even if she had received a scholarship or a Pell grant, she still felt like the time and resources required were too much given her responsibilities at home. So she dropped out.
She dedicated herself to earning more money any way she could. She sells nutrition supplements at a local farmers market on weekends. She makes costume accessories for girls’ birthday parties and sells them online.
She got rid of everything that wasn’t essential: cable, even her cell phone. She was determined to live independently. But nothing she tried was enough. No matter how hard she worked, her earnings were simply too little; her costs too great.
And so today, Kristeen – along with 42 million other women in America – finds herself on the edge of poverty and slipping over.
The solutions President Obama and his party offer single mothers have not worked. Their idea of helping is to spend more money on programs that do nothing to help Kristeen escape poverty.
Their idea of helping her get an education is a gimmick designed to win elections rather than reforms designed to bring higher education within her reach.
The result is that Americans like Kristeen are left feeling pessimistic about the future of our country. They are frustrated that no one in Washington seems to understand the challenges facing them. Worst of all, they hold little hope that their lives will improve. To restore the American Dream, we have to change that.
First, we need modern reforms to our anti-poverty programs. Reforms that would incentivize and reward the work Kristeen does now and help her acquire the skills she needs for a better job.
These innovations will never come from the federal government’s rigid one-size-fits-all approach. So I have proposed combining our existing federal anti-poverty money into a Flex Fund that would be made available to the states, which have the ability to design innovative and targeted programs to address the unique needs of their residents.
Liberals offer up increases in taxes and the minimum wage as ways of helping the struggling earn more. But these policies would result in many people like Kristeen losing their jobs. As an alternative, I have proposed replacing the flawed earned income tax credit with a wage enhancement credit that would boost her wage at the pet kennel.
We also need to bring an education within Kristeen’s reach. The big government solution for the cost of higher education is to slightly lower the monthly payment on existing student loans. Instead of short term gimmicks like this, a better approach would be to implement the reforms I proposed earlier this year that lower costs and encourage the creation of more affordable and accessible routes to a degree.
The online courses Kristeen was taking are actually more expensive than the cost of physically attending her local community college. Even if she received financial help, she couldn’t find an option that allowed her enough flexibility to work full-time and raise her family.
The reason for this is an outdated process called accreditation. A school must be accredited to award degrees and provide financial aid, but here’s the catch: established institutions control the accrediting process. As a result, the entrenched higher education cartel has the power to block out innovative, lower-cost competitors.
So I have proposed that Congress establish a new, independent accrediting process designed to open the door for more innovative and affordable schools. And I proposed ways to help Kristeen package the free tools all around her into an employable degree – tools such as online resources, apprenticeships, mentorships and personal study.
Unlike most traditional students, Kristeen also needs affordable daycare for her daughters. Even with government help, her out-of-pocket costs run into the hundreds every month. And if she decided to pursue her education full-time, she would lose her current childcare credit. So I propose allowing parents who are pursuing their education full-time to remain eligible for the childcare credit.
Daycare is far from the only burdensome expense Kristeen faces. From rent to her electric bill to car insurance, gas, and food, the cost of living is rising around her like floodwater. That’s why Senator Mike Lee and I have worked together to design pro-family tax reforms.
As part of our upcoming proposal, the per-child tax credit she currently receives would be raised from $1,000 to $2,500 so she can keep more of her own money. And it would be made refundable up to the total payroll and income tax liabilities, meaning whatever isn’t saved through her reduction of tax liability would be received in the form of a check.
Finally, given the dreams she has for her children, Kristeen is worried about the fact that her daughters will soon be forced to attend public schools that do not meet her standards for their educations.
Too many poor parents are denied the opportunity to send their children to the school of their choice. They can’t afford to move to a neighborhood with better schools and can’t afford private school tuition. That is why I’ve proposed a federal tax credit that encourages contributions to scholarship granting organizations that distribute private school scholarships to needy children.
We cannot preserve our standing as an exceptional nation if the American Dream isn’t possible for people like Kristeen. And if we do not put in place modern conservative reforms that will help her earn more, keep more of what she earns, go back to school, and send her girls to the best school possible, Kristeen and millions of Americans like her are going to be left behind.
But the single most important thing we can do to help her and every American is to unleash the prosperity that comes from a growing free enterprise economy. No group of Americans would benefit from robust economic growth more than young Americans like Jennifer and Evan.
Jennifer and Evan both live in my hometown of Miami. They’ve never met one another, yet they share a similar and increasingly common story.
Jennifer graduated four years ago from Florida International University with a degree in public administration. She was the first in her family to go to college. Growing up, her father always told her that an education was her ticket to a life better than his own.
But four years after earning her degree, she and her father fell on tough times. Her father was laid off, and the only job Jennifer could find was unrelated to her degree. It barely paid enough to get by, much less help out her father like she wished she could. So they both had to move in with Jennifer’s grandmother.
Meanwhile, Evan graduated last year from Liberty University with a degree in sports management and a mountain of student loan debt. He moved back home to Florida to begin the full-time job of looking for a full-time job. He is still looking today.
He was recently able to find two part-time jobs. One is at a retail store. The other allows him a glimpse of the industry he dreams of breaking into: he helps out as a game day assistant for the Miami Heat.
Between his two jobs, Evan brings home about $500 a month. This was barely enough to scrape by to begin with. But he recently received a letter … starting next week, on the first of July, he will have to start paying his nearly $20,000 in student loan debt. His finances were already teetering on the brink, and this will likely push them over.
Neither Jennifer nor Evan has lost hope. But far too many young Americans like them are starting to accept their current struggles as the new normal. They worry that a growing, job-producing economy is a thing of the past.
Just this morning, we received more evidence that our economy is headed in the wrong direction. During the first three months of this year, not only did our economy not grow, it shrank by 2.9%. The biggest drop in five years.
It doesn’t have to be this way. If we can put in place policies that will spur dynamic economic growth and make higher education more affordable, we can restore the American Dream for millions of young Americans.
In order to achieve the economic growth that leads to millions of better paying jobs, we need policies that incentivize investment and innovation. I have proposed tax reforms that make America a more attractive place to invest and regulatory reforms that help this remain the best place in the world to innovate. This will create millions of jobs for our graduates.
But creating jobs alone is not enough. Young Americans need to be able to acquire skills without also acquiring a lifetime of student loan debt. For example, Jennifer knows that getting a master’s degree will help her get the kind of job she desires, but she doesn’t want to go $50,000 in debt to get it.
As I mentioned before, the first step to making college more affordable is allowing more innovation and competition in higher education. But we also need to think of easier ways to pay for – and plan for – the costs of a degree.
For Evan, his loans are the primary obstacle preventing him from pursuing his dreams. Going into college, he knew the cost. What he didn’t know was how hard it would be to find a job with his degree. That is why I have filed a bill with Senator Ron Wyden that would require schools to tell prospective students how much their graduates earn with a given degree.
Second, I have proposed making income-based repayment the automatic repayment method for student loans. This way, Evan’s loan payments would directly correlate to how much he earns each month, removing the risk of default.
And third, I have proposed an alternative to student loans called Student Investment Plans. Students would be able to enter into an agreement with a private firm in which the firm pays for the student’s education in return for a percentage of their salary for a set number of years after graduation.
Modern reforms that lead to economic growth and increased education options would benefit all Americans. They would benefit single mothers like Kristeen and young people like Jennifer and Evan. But they would also help working families like the Broyles.
Daniel and Becky Broyles operate a small business called Foreign Accents, which sells home furnishings from all over the world. They are the only two employees, not including summer and weekend help from their three sons, aged 13, 16 and 19.
The Broyles started their business 17 years ago. It’s always been small, but it’s always provided enough to get by. That is… until the recession hit in 2007.
The impact on their business was nearly devastating. To survive, they began racking up expenses on multiple credit cards. They knew it was a desperate move, but they had no choice. And sure enough, it backfired. After a few late payments, the banks hiked their interest rates. And the debt on their shoulders began to compound.
At this point – like every time of trial in their lives – Daniel and Becky leaned on their faith to get through. With three boys who depended on them, they prayed that God would reveal the right way forward.
Together, they discussed their options. One of them could go back to school and try to get another job. But the job market made this a risky gamble when weighed against the costs of an education. As Daniel said, it never felt like the right answer.
Then, just when their situation seemed to hit rock bottom, a couple of contracts began to trickle in. A few customers returned to the shop. Business wasn’t what it was before, but it was enough to break even and stop the debt from rising. They decided to dig in and try to see the business through.
But as things were starting to look up, they were hit with another problem – this one directly from Washington DC. It’s called ObamaCare.
Daniel described what happened to his premiums. Around the time the recession hit, his family paid $440 a month. But year after year, as the ObamaCare debate raged on and eventually the law was signed, the premium gradually edged up. This was a burden, but it was nothing compared to what came when the law went into effect: his monthly premium shot up from $520 to $660. And worse, his deductible doubled, from $2,500 to $5,000.
They couldn’t afford it, so they dropped their coverage. They turned to a faith-based program called Medishare, which allows members to spread out the burden of costs and coverage.
Today, the Broyles are getting by. Their oldest son helps out with the business while working toward his online education. Their youngest two look forward to one day getting their degrees as well. Despite their struggles, they find fulfillment and purpose in the business they’ve worked the better part of 20 years to build.
But they are uncertain about the future. They do not have much money put away for retirement. In fact, Daniel jokes that he was thinking about running for Congress because he heard our benefits were great.
Our outdated laws, taxes and education system, and the growing burden of ObamaCare are making life harder than it needs to be for working families like the Broyles. In order to restore the American Dream, we need to change that.
My growth agenda will help them by elevating the entire economy. As they have found throughout their 17 years in business, when the economy is growing and thriving, more customers come by their shop.
Pro-growth tax reform will allow them to fully expense every investment they make in their company, making it easier for them to expand, earn more, and maybe even create a job or two.
Pro-family tax reform will help them with the cost of living. For their two younger sons, the Broyles receive a child tax credit of $1,000. But just like with Kristeen, the reforms I’m working on with Mike Lee would raise this to as much as $2,500 and would make it refundable.
Pro-education tax reform would help them with the cost of higher education for their kids. Joined by Representative Schock, I have proposed that we update and consolidate higher education tax incentives into one simple, easy-to-understand tax credit that applies universally to higher education and skills obtainment.
And market-centered healthcare reform will help them grow their business and receive quality care at an affordable price. ObamaCare is a disaster, but the answer is not to simply return to the way things were before it.
The answer is to repeal and replace ObamaCare with modern market-centered reforms. Reforms that would give the Broyles control over their healthcare decisions by giving them the power to buy the kind of health insurance they want, from any company they choose, at a price they can afford.
And finally, we need to bring the prospect of a dignified and secure retirement within the Broyles’ reach. Retirement in the 21st century will look different than it has in the past. People will work longer, not only because they have to but also because, like the Broyles, they enjoy it. But the three pillars of our current American retirement system – Social Security, pensions, and personal savings – are crumbling.
The answer is to implement modern solutions that save Social Security and Medicare without making any changes for people currently in the system. Solutions like gradually raising the retirement age for younger workers like myself.
We must make it easier and more profitable for those who choose to work beyond retirement age by removing the retirement earnings test and eliminating the payroll tax on older workers.
And we must make saving easier for the 75 million Americans who don’t have 401Ks through their employers. Last month I proposed opening the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan – which is like a 401K only with lower costs and generally better returns – to all Americans who lack access to an employer plan.
So Daniel and Becky can have Congress’ retirement plan after all. No Congressional campaign necessary.
Growing up, I knew this country was special. Because from my earliest days, my parents taught me that no dream was too big and no goal was out of reach for me – because I was an American Son.
Each person I’ve introduced you to today also believes America is special. But they are starting to wonder if that is still true for people like them. And they increasingly doubt it will be true for their own children.
Their American Dreams are not much different than my parents’. Kristeen wants to raise her daughters to be strong and self-sufficient. Jennifer wants to find a fulfilling job. Evan wants to pay off his loans and reach financial security by the time he’s ready to start a family. And the Broyles just want to run their business, send their children to college and retire securely.
And ultimately, what each of them wants is what everyone wants: the chance to build a better life for themselves, and the chance at an even better life for their children.
This is the Dream that defines our nation. The Dream that binds us together as one people. The Dream that we are now called upon to restore.
Today, people like Kristeen, Jennifer, Evan and the Broyles family have serious doubts about whether our current leaders are up to that task. They feel as if neither party understands, cares or has answers for the problems they face.
For those of us who serve or aspire to serve in public office, our goal must be to offer real hope for our future and real change for our nation – the hope of ushering in the most prosperous and promising era in our history, and the change it will require to achieve it.
We Americans have good reason to be hopeful, for no nation is better positioned to access the full promise of the 21st century economy. The new economy is all about innovation, creativity and productivity – and we are the most innovative, creative and productive people on the planet.
And the changes we must make to achieve this better future come from fundamental truths about our nation: that government exists to empower its people, and that our free enterprise economy is the greatest generator of opportunity and prosperity in human history.
From these principles we see that if we reform our taxes and regulations, we can create millions of higher paying jobs by winning the global competition for talent, investment, and innovation.
And if we modernize our outdated safety net programs and revolutionize how we acquire and pay for education, millions of people will have the skills they need for the higher paying jobs of the new economy.
Twentieth century America was special. But 21st century America has the potential to be even better.
This better tomorrow will not happen on its own. For two centuries, this nation has endured as an exceptional one because each generation before us has risen to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of their time. Now it is our turn.
We will either adapt to a new era and bring about another American Century or – like so many nations before us – our inability to address new realities will usher in our decline.
Our success will not be measured simply by the size of our economy or the performance of our stocks. Rather, it will depend on whether Americans like Kristeen, Jennifer, Evan and the Broyles family will get the real chance to earn for themselves a better life; on whether the American Dream becomes possible for them the way it has been for so many before.
This is the standard by which we will be judged. And it should be, for being the land of equal opportunity is what sets us apart from all the nations on the earth. The great cause of our time is to reclaim the American Dream for more of our people than ever before. And in doing so leave for our children what our parents left for us: the single greatest nation the world has ever known.