Somewhere in the past, when you were a kid, you learned about America. You learned that history with a capital “H” began with Columbus-ish and ended with the Great Depression. In November, you dressed up as either a pilgrim (good) or an Indian (somehow, not so good, though you did get feathers, which almost made up for it) and you ate something together while feeling really positive about the whole thing and what good people the old Puritans were for being so darned inclusive. In February, you heard the story about the cherry tree and you colored a big construction paper face that sort of looked like either Lincoln or Washington (this was prime, because you usually got cotton balls to glue to it, which was totally awesome). Whichever president you had was then added to the much bigger hearts-for-Valentines-day project you had going. And, of course, a huge section of the year was devoted to July, which was funny since it wasn’t technically during school, but July equals Revolution and Constitution and the Founding Fathers, which were like American versions of Santa Claus and Jesus or something. And the way all of that made you feel, and can still make you feel now that you’re grown up, especially when you hear violins and/or canons while looking at fireworks and/or the flag and/or the big bell and/or Lady Liberty, was what it meant to be American.
And it was good.
Better than that, you learned that you could be anything you wanted to be. If that failed, so long as you worked hard and weren’t too wasteful, you learned you would be alright. That, in America, hard work paid off. You could afford to eat. To live under a roof. To wear clothes. To go to a doctor. To have what you needed. That you would work hard and it would result in a living wage and that your children, if you did all of that, would do at least as well. A house and a good future for the kids was the American dream, but a decent, dignified, solid sort of life was the American promise.
And that was really good. Only…
Somewhere along the line, something bad has happened. The Great Recession highlighted it. Recent protests in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana over “right to work” legislation underline it. The highly-charged atmospherics surrounding “the vanishing middle class” put it all in neon. But really, since about 1979, wages have been falling in this country and income inequality has become turbo-charged. More than that, there is a huge—and growing—proportion of Americans who have been so completely shut out of the middle class that the American promise they grew up with has become an American dream: the stuff of Other People’s lives, gossamer-thin and utterly out of reach. And that wasn’t what they were taught that being American meant.
We define poverty in this country at roughly $10,000 of annual income for one person, at $23,000 for a family of four. And we’re still, thankfully, providing some support for people living at these levels. But what of the people who are not middle class at about $40,000? Who receive no help because they are considered not to be in poverty because they earn at least $10K? Who are we kidding? What is a living wage in 21st century America? And if someone doesn’t earn that, how can they not be considered impoverished? And how, oh how, can we possibly justify the fact that people can work 40 hours a week and not earn a living wage in the richest country in the world, the last remaining superpower, America, the Exceptional?
When kids are dressing up in their little Pilgrim and Indian outfits in today’s classrooms, do we have the audacity to recite to them Article 23-3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection?” And then, are we honest enough, like construction-paper-Abe, to whisper in their little ear “so long as you don’t work at a socially ignorable job, dear?”
When this new generation is being torn away from their mobile devices long enough to hear about the Declaration and the Revolution, the Mayflower and the Greatest Generation, do we quote Article 25-1: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being…, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…” and then clarify that we mean “well, maybe 60 percent of everyone?”
Do we teach our youngest to be technologically proficient from the earliest possible age so that they can be doubly disappointed when they grow up and can’t afford the connection fees? So that they can be shut out of participating in the local, national, and international conversation (and the opportunities that accompany those) in violation of Article 27-1 because technology prices and monthly rates are not considered necessary to “life,” though “living” and “betterment” are other things entirely?
We don’t do any of these things, and not just because we are too exceptional to ratify the silly little Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We don’t tell the truth about the working poor in America because only scary people (read: liberals) are saying these things. Because the Declaration of Independence includes “the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” not the right for a dollar earned to cover a dollar of shelter, food, energy, and a coat. It also mentions nothing about dentistry (teeth are for elitists. Also, for the rich).
But most of all, we don’t educate our young about the truth that they can go to college, work hard, and still not be able to afford to live because the working poor deserve what they get—or don’t get, rather. Otherwise, how can the U.S. be fair, be great, be exceptional? And how can we, as citizens, stand by and observe the injustice of it when someone tries like hell and busts it 40 hours a week and still can’t make it? It’s so uncomfortable, it just can’t be true. Left over from our Puritan work ethic, the belief of our forbears, material gain is a sign of God’s favor, of desert. Or the vestiges of Social Darwinism: the fittest survive, and thus are the ones who somehow were able enough to deserve to make it. Those that “fail” were and are less able, less deserving. They just have to be. So if these working people struggle, well, somewhere along the line they did something to deserve it. They’re not like normal people; they’re miscreants and misfits. It’s their fault because the world is just, America is more just because it’s democratic.
“Democracy can be cruel to misfits. The reason it’s cruel is you’re told you can be anything, and there’s enough evidence around you of people getting ahead that you believe it’s true. So when you don’t, it’s crushing. The more democratic a society, the more humiliating the failure” (Charles Peters).
And we’re the most democratic there is. And to hear the politicians talk, to watch people sleeping in the statehouse in Wisconsin; to hear the powerful privilege zygotes over the currently living, or bankbooks over access to health care; to hear concern over the “privileged elites”[i] working for moderate income in public service; or to hear the suggestion that people earning $35K have more benefits than other people and so should lose them[ii]–well, that’s a Race to the Bottom that’s so democratic, it’s Exceptional.
It’s so democratic, it’s supercalidemocratic.
And won’t that be fun to fit in to the Social Studies curriculum of the future?