America: Still the Land of Opportunity for Better Online Videos
Americans know their country has a lot of economic inequality. But they tell themselves that’s OK. It’s OK because America offers a wealth of opportunity to those at the bottom. We’re unique that way.
The only problem is, it isn’t true.
President Obama said so in the recent election: “The rungs on the ladder of opportunity have grown farther and farther apart.”
Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan said so, too: “Right now, America’s engines of upward mobility aren’t working the way they should.”
Noah’s narrative arc continues:
Our self-image as the land of opportunity comes mainly from two writers: One was Horatio Alger, who wrote dime novels about plucky street urchins getting ahead. The other was James Truslaw Adams, an historian who coined the phrase “the American Dream.”
Alger and Adams were not up-from-the-bottom types themselves; they were born into prosperous families and received good educations. But they lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the time of America’s rapid industrialization, and both saw that this young country offered many more opportunities for advancement than class-bound Europe.
Today we’ve got nothing like that kind of mobility.
Horatio Alger novels are entertaining and educational, and available free online. It turns out many of Alger’s characters and events are based on true stories drawn from personal interviews and reports in the New York Times. Thousands of children worked on the street of New York in the late 1800s, selling newspapers, smashing (carrying) luggage, delivering messages, working retail, and dozens of other very low-paying tasks. Nonprofit organizations provided inexpensive housing and many were sent to live safer lives in the country. Still, over time these young “street arabs” gained job skills and learned to raise their incomes. Alger’s “rags to riches” stories emphasize that honesty, thrift, and saving, were the keys to success, along with getting an education and working hard.
Horatio Alger writes, in the preface to Rufus and Rose: Or, The Fortunes of Rough and Ready:
… Several of the characters are drawn from life, and nearly all of the incidents are of actual occurrence. Indeed, the materials have been found so abundant that invention has played but a subordinate part. The principal object proposed, in the preparation of these volumes, has been to show that the large class of street boys—numbering thousands in New York ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼alone—furnishes material out of which good citizens may be made, if the right influences are brought to bear upon them. In every case, therefore, the author has led his hero, step by step, from vagabondage to a position of respectability; and, in so doing, has incurred the charge, in some quarters, of exaggeration. It can easily be shown, however, that he has fallen short of the truth, rather than exceeded it. In proof, the following extract from an article in a New York daily paper is submitted:— “As a class, the newsboys of New York are worthy of more than common attention. The requirements of the trade naturally tend to develop activity both of mind and body, and, in looking over some historical facts, we find that many of our most conspicuous public men have commenced their careers as newsboys. Many of the principal offices of our city government and our chief police courts testify to the truth of this assertion. From the West we learn that many of the most enterprising journalists spring from the same stock.”
Poor children today in America’s cities and countrysides are better off and better fed than street kids of the late 1800s New York City. But in protecting today’s children from work, few young people in poor families have the opportunity to begin learning job skills and working their way out of poverty until their are teenagers. Young people in middle-income and wealthy families, on the other hand, participate in many organizations and activities that teach key job skills, from scouting to speech and debate to volunteer work to part-time business-like tasks for friends and relatives.
Poor children today lack many of the employment and income opportunities of children much poorer “enjoyed” in the 1800s. Few children I think “enjoy” working any more than they enjoy being poor. But blocking young people in poor families from income-earning, skill-building activities frustrates their natural urge to get ahead, as well as cuts off an avenue for gaining additional income for their family. And nearly everyone in the world was poor just a century ago. Nearly all children worked to help their families.
It can be called unfair or inequitable that so many children were so poor in American cities in the late 1800s. It seems unfair too that so many millions around the world today live in similar poverty in the cities and countrysides of India, China, Indonesia, Brazil, the Middle East, and across Africa.
But there are economic fallacies at the center of policies that block natural enterprise and entrepreneurship in much of the developing world. There are in fact limitless employment opportunities for the urban poor. Poverty is a problem, but so are regulations that prevent young people from working legally at jobs that are safe and within their abilities. Why have adults cleaning tables at restaurants, if children and young people could do the same work safely? We wouldn’t want children working ten, twelve or sixteen-hour days, as many did in the 1800s. But what about a four-hour day that comes with a free meal, after school at a nearby restaurant? Would that be the end of the world? Or the thin edge of the wedge to sending children back to dark and dangerous factories?
For more on this idea, I recommend the compelling movie of rural China, Not One Less (link to Amazon page). Like Horatio Alger novels based on true stories of city and rural poverty in the U.S., Not One Less gives us a glimpse of real-world city and rural poverty in China.
Many young people prefer trying jobs in cities to poverty in the countryside. Economic freedom includes the freedom to move, and around the world hundreds of millions have moved to cities, often to the shantytown surrounding fast-growing cities of the developing world.
I’ve written more on the economic opportunities of city life, and have various notes and links on this page: http://www.economicthinking.org/chartercities/
Here is sample from an Izzit.org video featuring economist Hernando de Soto:
“Poor people are migrating to the world’s cities in astounding numbers, embracing globalization despite the risks, and when the laws they encounter don’t work for them, they create their own.”