Mobility… and Presidents

I've been reading a lot about the end of the American Dream. Class mobility? A myth. The idea that hard work and good choices lead to success? A lie meant to placate the masses.

Yet, as I've written before, there is ample evidence that hard work, a stable family, and some relatively simple choices do lead people in the middle class. See:

As I wrote in that post:

  • 86% of the wealthiest households are married couples.
  • 20% of the poorest households feature a married couple.
  • $56,000 is the median income for a person with a bachelor's degree.
  • $19,000 is the median income for someone without a high school diploma.
  • $36,000 is the median income for someone with a two-year college degree or technical certification.

The basic formula for reaching the upper-middle class (or better): get a degree, get married (and stay married), exercise, and avoid "bad" habits (smoking, drugs, heavy drinking).

If the American dream is a myth, why have all but two presidents (both with the surname "Bush") elected during my lifetime come from the middle class or even the lower class? Consider the presidents:

Obama: We could argue middle vs. lower-middle, but his family lived in apartments and small houses. His family was not in the top five percent. He did have different experiences than most middle-class Americans, but living in a mansion and inheriting a fortune wasn't his childhood, either.

Clinton: Another tumultuous childhood. No one is going to claim Bill Clinton was from the elite class and destined for success.

Reagan: Dixon, Illinois? Not known for its mansions and wealth. Reagan was an actor, eventually, but he was born and raised in the middle class.

Carter: I'll grant that his father was a businessman and his mother a nurse, but Carter should probably be considered a middle-class success story. He earned his degree from the Naval Academy. Yes, he was wealthy by the time he ran for office, but Carter is credited for expanding and building a family farm into a huge business. I suppose we could argue if he was "given" the farm or not, but Carter definitely built the business.

Ford: His parents lived with his grandparents in Omaha, Nebraska. Again, not a wealthy beginning. Depending on the biographer you trust, it is possible that Ford's childhood was as messy as Clinton's formative years.

Nixon: Extremely poor. Born at home to parents who were in the midst of bankruptcy. The Nixon family lost their house. It doesn't get much worse than that.

Yet, the men listed above rose in business and politics to the highest office in this nation. Yes, we also had the two Bush presidencies, but overall, my lifetime has seen middle-class men and women rise to great heights. The presidents of the past were often from elite families and wealthy backgrounds, but six of the last eight were from humble, middle-class roots.

The American Dream proved to be true for the current (and now wealthy) president. That's the message every candidate for office should be proclaiming: the dream still exists. It's not a perfect system, and you have to be prepared for some random opportunities, but making preparations for success is something you have to do on a personal level.


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