By ALICE LIANG ’16
A major buzzword of last week’s State of the Union address was “hard work.” The speech reinforced the idea of the American Dream, the promise that regardless of where you start, “hard work” will lead you to financial stability and success. The dream seems alive because we hear the stories of the few exceptionally successful entrepreneurs and politicians, many of whom have portraits hanging on the walls of Alumnae Hall. They are like the skyscrapers of a big city that hide the housing projects. Yes, we to believe that these success stories will one day be ours, but where are the narratives of those who never make it?
In his speech, Obama stated that “Too many young people entering the workforce today will see the American Dream as an empty promise—unless we do more to make sure our economy honors the dignity of work, and hard work pays off for every single American.” His proposal for a raise in the minimum wage could help, but undoubtedly there are factors that, no matter how hard you work, make mobility more difficult than the promise suggests. These systemic factors—including race, gender and sexuality, among other identities—keep those in lower socioeconomic classes where they are.
Here at Wellesley, I am privileged to be part of an elite body of students earning an exceptional education. Yet many of us still flinch every time that “New eBill from Wellesley College” email pops up or awkwardly avoid clubs with apparel or classes with supplies that are too expensive to justify. Too many of us know what it’s like to neither be able to afford to do unpaid internships nor skip out on them in preparation for our career. Many great future teachers, artists and academics have buried their passions in exchange for the steady salary needed to support a family. There is a need for dialogue about the inconvenient truths of class differences on this campus.
Across the world, thousands of future immigrants still look toward the America as the “Land of Opportunity.” I don’t have the heart to tell them that the Dream is now too often a life of debt rather than abundance, and retiring someday rather than soon. But the failure of the American Dream is not a critique of our character. We never gave up on the Dream because it was too difficult. It is the rhetoric of hard work that pushes people into corners of a maze they did not build.
Yet in this discussion, I can’t ignore the dissonance between my distaste for the American Dream and my own dependence on its survival and veracity. My immigrant parents have ingrained in me the importance of security and savings. They lived and breathed “hard work,” and it paid off, as they climbed up incredible self-imposed social rungs. While I was growing up, we implicitly pretended to be wealthy to fit in, and we lived in that illusion so much that we began to believe it, until the housing crisis, the job cuts and the unexpected medical bills hit. At one point, all three of us, my parents and I, each worked two or more jobs at the same time to make ends meet. There is a part of me that clings to first generation immigrant communities who share these narratives. But in the future, I do plan to pursue a lucrative career, made possible by the very free market that has put the recession’s recovery into the hands of the already rich while pushing too many of my peers down.
I have given up on the American Dream, and at the same time, paradoxically, I live it. But if for nothing else but cynicism and selfishness, I want a new American Dream. I want an American Dream in which hard work remains, but accompanied by a dream that takes into its own hands what the free market might never allow. This is a dream that will allow this generation and generations down the line to have personal fulfillment that also provides financial success. This includes increasing support for higher education, especially for low-income and underrepresented students. This means wider access to financial markets, including access to capital for those who don’t have wealthy networks to support their innovations and access to credit for innovators who haven’t had the privilege to build up a high score. From the government, this requires an electoral system that values people over super PACs, a political system that pushes people not towards apathy but activism. I hope to see a citizenship that breaks down oppressive structures, that raises each other up. I hope that this, one day, is the state of the union.
Alice Liang is a sophomore Economics & Political Science double major, aspiring poet, amateur photographer, hopeful activist and coffee addict. Follow her on Twitter at @aliceyliang