David Hoppe

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:: Talking about class

Is America ready yet?

By David Hoppe

When I was in sixth grade, I had a teacher, Mrs. Rider, who asked us: “What makes America different from all other countries?”

A bunch of preadolescent arms shot up, as several of us dared to guess the answer. As I remember it, most of these guesses were inspired by the lines of patriotic songs and pledges, like “liberty and justice for all,” and “ home of the brave.”

Then Mrs. Rider called on Bob Freck. Bob was sitting toward the back of the class. He was a friendly, slightly heavyset kid. Like many of us, his complexion was beginning to play rude tricks on an otherwise thoughtful countenance.

“America has a middle class?”

Although delivered with a touch of uncertainty, this was the answer Mrs. Rider was looking for. After congratulating Bob for his insight, she began a discussion of American social mobility. “How many of your parents have been to college?” she asked.

Fewer than half the kids in the room raised their hands.

Mrs. Rider nodded. She told us that what made America different was that, thanks to our middle class, most of us would go to college, whether our parents had been there or not. Our middle class was like a launching pad that would enable us to surpass our parents. It made progress possible.

I know I've told this story before, but it seems particularly apt now. Class, a word many Americans shy away from, is suddenly in the national conversation with a frequency and intensity that feels new.

The Occupy movement has something to do with this. Many people criticized Occupiers for their lack of an agenda, the bullet points constituting a recipe for social reform. But by drawing a blunt distinction between American society's one percent and everybody else, the movement succeeded in shining a light on a phenomenon most people knew was affecting them, even if they weren't sure how to describe it.

Americans have an underdeveloped vocabulary when it comes to talking about class. One reason for this is the way we tend to teach our country's history. Most of us are taught that history is a story and, in America's case, it's a story about progress. When things change, it's usually because what came before is out-moded, or obsolete. Change, in other words, is usually for the better.

One of the things that supposedly changed in America, was the European class system. We left that in the Old Country, making America “the land of opportunity.” You could come here with nothing and make something of yourself.

This didn't come naturally. At first, half this country's economy was based on slavery. The other half exploited child labor and demanded soul-crushing hours in often dangerous conditions for scant pay. Battles were fought to create the kind of working conditions that eventually made America's middle class possible. Getting rid of slavery required a civil war.

These experiences served to confirm the idea that America was a place where class distinctions could be overcome. That's not to say we didn't have problems that needed solving, but we tended to say those problems were due to something besides class — racism, say, or sexism, poor parenting or intoxication. Americans have even blamed themselves for misfortune before entertaining the idea that the game is rigged against them because the game itself is rigged.

Yet that is what class is all about. It's a game where the same people win over and over again, while everybody else muddles through.

But something's happened in America. Household income declined to its lowest level in more than a decade in 2010. The Corporation for Enterprise Development estimates that 43 percent of Americans haven't got enough money to live for three months if they lose their job. More of us — 46 million — are living in poverty than ever before. Fifty million have no health insurance; 50 million more are underinsured. Total student loan debt is now over $1 trillion.

This student loan stat is telling. As Mrs. Rider assured my sixth grade class, access to a college education would all but guarantee that boys and girls alike could look forward to not only being part of the middle class, but having lives that would build on the hard work of our parents.

In those days, it hardly mattered what you majored in. English or Economics, the degree itself was a kind of ticket that simultaneously defied class distinctions and reinforced them. This was a golden age for the Liberal Arts.

Well, a college degree ain't what it used to be. A BA, in most cases, has about the same cache as a high school diploma in Mrs. Rider's day. Graduate school is almost mandatory, if for no other reason, to put off paying student loans that have outstripped many graduates' earning potential. Now, instead of education, people talk increasingly about training.

Training isn't a very aspirational word. It doesn't suggest possibilities, so much as limitations, albeit with a certain amount of security. It's the kind of thing you talk about, when you'd rather not talk about class.