I'm sick of hearing that America is no longer a land of opportunity.
Even before the current recession, politicians and pundits were
constantly wringing their hands about the "demise of the middle class."
"Middle class families are struggling," President Barack Obama kept
saying on the campaign trail.
Lou Dobbs hammers away at this night after night: "What's left of our
middle class may be on the verge of collapse."
And author Barbara Ehrenreich won fame by claiming that it's almost
impossible for an entry-level worker to make it in America. She wrote
"Nickel and Dimed," a book that describes her failure to "make it"
working in entry-level jobs. Her book is now required reading in
thousands of high schools and colleges. I spoke to her for my ABC
special "Bailouts, Big Spending and Bull".
"I worked as a waitress and an aide in a nursing home and a cleaning
lady and a Wal-Mart associate. And that didn't do it."
If you do a good job, can't you move up?
"That's not easy. Wal-Mart capped the maximum you can ever make."
But if you do a good job, you could be promoted to assistant manager,
"Well, I suppose."
I pointed out that the new CEO of Wal-Mart, Mike Duke, started out as an
"There are always exceptions," she said. "My father worked his way up
and became a corporate executive. But that was a one-in-a-million
"I read 'Nickel and Dimed,'" Adam Shepard told me. He was assigned her
book in college and decided to test Ehrenreich's claim.
He picked a city out of a hat, Charleston, S.C., and showed up there
with $25. He didn't tell anyone about his college degree. He soon got an
$8/hour job working for a moving company. He kept at it. Within a year,
he told me, "I have got $5,500 and a car. I have got a furnished
Adam writes about his search for the American Dream in "Scratch
Beginnings". It's a very different book from
"Nickel and Dimed."
"If you want to fail, go for it, " he said.
Barbara Ehrenreich wanted to fail?
"Absolutely, I think she wanted to fail and write the book about it.
I asked him for evidence.
"She is spending $40 on pants. She is staying in hotels. I made
sacrifices so that I could succeed. She didn't make any sacrifices."
I asked Ehrenreich: Why can he do it, when you couldn't?
"I know, it's embarrassing."
Were you trying to fail?
"I think that is so unfair. The $40 pants, that was a big mistake, and
that was one mistake I made early on. The motels, that's not a rich
You could have succeeded if you'd gotten a roommate.
"In time, yes, I could have gotten roommates."
You're saying you can't make it in America in these jobs. And you can.
"I said, here's what my experience was."
Her account of her experience is a very misleading portrait of
opportunity in America. American Enterprise Institute president Arthur
Brooks points out, "From 1950 to 2007,
middle-class family income went up, in real dollars, adjusted for
inflation, from $29,000 a year to $75,000."
Of course now we're in the midst of a recession. Millions have lost jobs.
"We can't make light of that. But we have to keep this in perspective.
We've had worse recessions."
Perspective is right.
"Middle-class people today live like rich people lived in the 1950s."
"We've always said, 'But in the old days things were better,'" Brooks
notes. "They said that in the 1920s. They said that in the 1950s, and we
say it again today. It's not that we have less money. It's that our
expectations have risen."
Lately, fear has risen, as the economy has fallen. But economies do
"We have a society that rewards hard work and merit," Brooks adds. "Half
of the poor actually are not poor 10 years later. Nobody is stuck where
they start out."