The Broken Bootstraps of America: The Increasing Income Inequalities that are Breaking Us

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I have a story to tell, it’s a story that often goes untold because of the shame that surrounds it. An unpopular story that needs a voice, but rarely receives a listen. It’s a story that goes against what we’ve been taught, what we’ve ingested, and what’s been woven into our very identity as Americans. I’m sharing this story because I feel that we’ve been told a lie. A damning one, at that. In fact, it’s the greatest American lie of our times. And, I fear, it is breaking us.

The story has materialized over decades, where competition has been valued over collectivism; And where wealth, has been valued over an investment in humanity for the greater good. Those who have shaped our culture and who remain powerful, have spent an inordinate amount of time and investment amassing wealth in these capitalist, “United” States of America. They have done so under the guise of the “American Dream”, often by exploiting our societal and cultural norms of being fiercely independent and materialistic, leading us into isolation, and ultimately, to embittered division, and even, hatred.

The lie that was fed to us is called “The American Dream”. It is this very dream of “independence and amassing material wealth” that has been used to justify the ever increasing economic disparities in our country and the negligence of our most vulnerable citizens. It is safe to say that greed and lust for power is a human flaw that has lead to many systemic injustices, as well as a system of unwritten societal structures that have served to diminish one’s capacity to gain power, thus acquiring a piece of the “American Dream”.

Many people have been denied the acquisition of this “dream”. This lie, in fact, of the “American Dream” has been propagated to us over decades to instill fear and has been used by some to justify various systemic injustices. Many people have been told they haven’t tried hard enough, are lazy, and it is essentially their fault for never reaching stability or security in this country of great economic wealth. But, as the gap between the wealthy and the poor widens, the foundation begins to erode further, and one can see the cracks built upon the lie that ALL Americans have had equal access to the “dream”. It simply isn’t true.

Sadly, we’ve been living a lie and it is one that was spoon-fed to all of us in our educational settings and through our media, which drives our cultural norms and values. Most of our institutions and organizations are heavily influenced, and some even outright owned, by corporate entities. When political campaigns rely heavily on outside funding sources, there is little doubt that those in positions of power have a hold on the societal infrastructure that maintains their wealth. We’ve been manipulated into believing that monetary gain and financial security is a measure of an individual’s worth. That somehow if a person is wealthy, he/she must be intelligent, at least, and that securing wealth has become somewhat of the ultimate, American Dream.

But, hasn’t it become the American Nightmare?       

When millions are out of work and one wealthy individual spends millions on a home during a global pandemic, and is still revered by so many, haven’t we lost our way?

Those who are wealthy rely on those who are not to sustain them. Wealth does not “trickle down”. Instead, we have large corporations with owners who have the ability to spend millions on a single home, while their employees are unable to afford healthcare treatment and have to work two jobs to afford an apartment. While the owner spends lavishly, their employees are unable to save for a modest home in order to secure the tiniest slice of the American Dream that grants financial stability.

The extreme wealthy are so because they exploit labor. They have more, because the give so little. I am not referring to our small business owners. I am referring to the top 1% that are monopolizing resources, exploiting labor, and taking more than their fair share and they are doing so under the pretense that they somehow “worked harder” than others or are “smarter” in some way. The reality is no matter how they got into their position, once there, the “name of the game” is exploitation and maintaining the status quo. These individuals take more than they need and in order to do so, they must give so little. No one needs to live in grotesque excess. And yet, this is what our culture seems to value. This is actually the American Nightmare, and it’s maintenance of it through securing political “real estate” and essentially owning the media outlets that promote this fallacy, which I feel is breaking us in the end.

Some people in America have been blatantly, and more obviously, denied the American Dream through systemic racism, ableism, sexism, etc. This side of America is fighting not only for justice, but for equal access of which they have never truly had. Those who are living in rural areas are seeing this fight as a threat to their own struggles of seeing the cost of living, over time, rise while their wages stay the same. They feel invisible, that their hard work is going unrecognized, and that the programs and ideologies that will grant more access and equality to marginalized populations, will be a threat to their sustainability. These are people connected to the American soil, somewhat divorced from the urban areas and the problems that plague cities. The lines have been drawn and those in power are using the American public as pawns, easily used and discarded for personal power, wealth, and gain. Those in power are not connected to those who have so little of it. America is slowly crumbling and without serious mending, it will fall. Like any great empire, there comes a time when power is lost. Without recognition of these issues and what is at stake, we will continue to unravel and things will get worse.

I’ve felt called to write on this subject because I feel as an American our safety is increasingly at risk. I am connected to people from all walks of life: young and old, black, brown, or white, gay, trans, straight, Christian, Muslim or atheist, rural or urban dweller, etc. I feel we ultimately are products of our upbringing and the cultural frame in which we were raised. There has been a serious lack of education and awareness to certain issues, and again, much of this has been intentional. The influence from those in power who wish to maintain it, saturate our media and even often overshadow every aspect of our daily lives. It is inescapable. It truly takes one to intentionally question the information we receive and to purposely set out to seek understanding from others living here, and even abroad, to break the “spell” that we’ve all been subjected to both in media and in our institutions.

I see my country crumbling before me. I am ashamed to admit that there is so much I do not know. I am embarrassed to say that I live in one of the wealthiest countries, but I haven’t truly learned about the struggle of others abroad because I could “afford” not to do so. Like so many, I was living in a bubble, concerned with my own experiences. This past year has shaken me, awakening me to acknowledge the crumbling foundation and the dissolve of the “American Dream” that I now believe to be a “lie”. I see those struggling the most, sometimes barely hanging on, being blamed and gaslighted, by those who are comfortable in their modest wealth and who appear to be fine with the “status quo”.

We are a country on the “edge”. And we’ve been fed an atrocious lie. In our ethnocentrism and cloak of American “values”, we’ve boasted of being the ‘best”, when in reality we are ascribing to a sentiment that isn’t always practiced. We can do better. I can do better. Our values need to truly be reflected in all aspects of our American way of life. Otherwise, it is just “lip service”.

I will keep reading. I will keep learning. And I will keep my heart open and my voice will not waver. I grew up, fortunately, with parents who truly believed in the American core values of honoring diversity and living in a world where all were valued. I still believe in that America. I just feel that living here for so many years, without having to directly face certain harsh realities, I became numb in ways to the struggles that so many face, here and abroad. We cannot afford, as a nation, to remain numb or complacent. We are all interdependent and the world needs us to “wake up”. I think many of us are. I hope so anyway.

If we stay asleep and continue to crumble, not addressing the core root of our problems: greed and the lust for wealth and power, and the admiration of it, we will continue to erode and so many living in our country will not attain any measure of the American Dream. We are only as “rich” as our poorest citizen. Our communities are only safe and healthy when we invest in all of our citizens. When we stop gaslighting those who struggle here, and instead, provide them with equal access, we are strengthened. The American Dream, was called a “dream” for a reason. It was not real and never has been. But, we could get a lot closer to this dream by acknowledging the lie and listening to those hurt by the gaslighting, shift blaming, and stonewalling that has trickled down from the wealthy, spilling out of our mouths, denying others access to a part of our wealth.

We need to start listening to each other. Forget the memes, the media, and those seeking to divide us. We are stronger together. Let’s not play into their hands, sewing more division. Listen more. Love more. And hopefully, we will all “have more” as a result.