"The middle class is trying--we're trying to grab and trying to hold on, but it's hard...The last 20 years we've been going sideways. You're not getting ahead. You're just going sideways. You're just trying to keep your head above water."
- Public Agenda focus group participant, Secaucus, NJ, December 2015
For an increasing number of Americans, disappearing opportunity is a source of anxiety and frustration. They feel unable to find a foothold in the economy and, over time, better their lot in life. They talk about how unaffordable the essentials of middle-class life have become, the eroding American Dream, the stubbornness of poverty, the unfairness of the forces that ensnare people in it, and the growing gap between the wealthy and everyone else.
We've seen this anxiety expressed in research from my organization, Public Agenda. In a national survey, 43 percent of Americans told us that "even people with a strong work ethic and good values are becoming increasingly shut out from the American Dream." In a 2015 Public Agenda/WNYC survey with residents in the New York region, just 16 percent said opportunities to get ahead are improving.
People are worried for good reason. Wages for most Americans have been stagnant for decades. Stable, middle-class jobs are becoming a thing of the past. Whereas expanding opportunity creates pathways out of poverty, supports strong communities, moderates inequality, and forges the economic and social foundation upon which democracy can flourish, diminishing and unequal opportunity is a blight on the American Dream and a danger to democracy.
In the words of public opinion expert and social scientist Dan Yankelovich's:
My fifty-plus years of experience in interpreting public opinion tells me that if equality of opportunity continues to erode, extremist political movements will inevitably arise, making our present polarization far worse than it is today and ripping to shreds our social contract. Reversing the trend of stagnating opportunities...is a political and economic must.
-Dan Yankelovich, Rebooting Democracy
The trend has been decades in the making. Reversing it will sorely challenge our ability as a democratic people to work together to address tough problems. For there is no single, technical answer that will do the trick. Rather, restoring opportunity will require concerted efforts on many fronts, including helping communities create good jobs with fair wages, close education achievement gaps, and address the sky-rocketing costs of college, health care, and, in many places, housing.
These and other thorny challenges will require innovative solutions, substantial public support, and effective partnerships. In short, they will require strong, inclusive, democratic problem solving. If stunted opportunity is a danger to democracy, inclusive and thoughtful democratic problem solving is the surest path to progress.
At Public Agenda, we think the best shot for such problem solving is on the local level--in neighborhoods, cities, metro areas and states - rather than in Washington, where political dysfunction is most deeply entrenched. In contrast to our national politics, ambitious mayors, mobilized communities, regional coalitions and hard-working statehouses are taking measures to produce jobs, combat climate change, put wages on the upswing, reform education and more.
There's a long way to go, but at least productive activity is taking place and signs of progress are apparent. Many cities, for instance, are conducting minimum wage experiments to see if they can raise incomes without losing jobs, fostering entrepreneurship, and embracing democratic innovations like participatory budgeting to empower communities and earn back trust in government. Many states are deploying strategies to increase community college student success and improve the process of transfer from two- to four-year institutions, so more students can reach their educational goals. Many communities of color are organizing to ensure safe and healthy neighborhoods, fair treatment under the law and adequately resourced schools.
The task ahead is to bend the arc of opportunity upward by supporting these shoots of local progress so they solidly take root, and to expand their number as rapidly as we can.