Mobility, equity, and the pursuit of the American dream
Session two examined social and economic mobility
University of Virginia President Jim Ryan introduced the second UVA Democracy Biennial event by considering the current state of democracy. “In some ways, this may be the most urgent moment for democracy we’ve faced, certainly in our lifetimes,” Ryan said. “Yet I see reasons for optimism that our democracy will not only endure, but thrive.”
During the panel, entitled “Mobility, equity, and the pursuit of the American dream,” participants considered whether American democracy can still thrive.
(This is an edited video.)
Looking first at gender equity, Karen Lips, founder and president of the Network of enlightened Women, pointed to the strides women have made nationally, noting that in 2020, women made up 46 percent of the U.S. labor force and are projected to earn 57.7 percent of bachelor’s degrees this year. She also highlighted challenges for women both nationally and globally. To further expand opportunities for girls and women, Lips said, we need to utilize “opportunity feminism,” finding ways to expand freedom and opportunity for all.
Rashad Robinson, the president of Color of Change, the nation’s largest racial justice organization, then spoke about racial inequities in the United States and their impact on democracy.
“Democracy is not just a word that measures racial justice; racial justice is also a solution, a driver for major improvement in our democracy itself,” Robinson said. “Most rules in society still make life harder and less free for Black people and for other people of color in almost every aspect of life.”
Being honest about democracy, Robinson said, means getting real about race and having honest conversations. “What makes democracy powerful is the power of the people who believe in it and fight for it,” he said.
Panel moderator Melody Barnes, the director of UVA's Karsh Institute of Democracy and the co-director of UVA’s Democracy Initiative, opened the discussion by asking each participant about the state of the American Dream.
The people [who are] born and live in this country I don’t think accept the idea of the American Dream as much as people who don’t live here and who want to come here.
“I think the American Dream is challenged right now,” said David Rubenstein, cofounder and chairman of the Carlyle Group. “But the challenge is that the people [who are] born and live in this country I don’t think accept the idea of the American Dream as much as people who don’t live here and who want to come here.”
Margaret Spellings, former education secretary under President George W. Bush, pointed to education as the major access point. “It’s about the quality of education and the rationing of rigor and resources that we often see in our public schools,” Spellings said. “High levels of education are the number one answer to achieving the American dream.”
Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said that in considering the American dream, we need our country’s social protections and labor protections to include everyone “regardless of where they work, how they work—and if they are working—they should be able to make ends meet.”
Spellings noted that “if we don’t get education right, we are going nowhere fast.” Early childhood literacy, work-based credentials and funding incentives, Spellings said, could collectively aid in the path to mobility and equity.
While Poo agreed that “upscaling the worker” is important, she added that “we aren’t having enough of a conversation about how we are ensuring there are good jobs at the end of training available to workers, where they can actually earn a decent living, have dignified work and take care of their families.”
Barnes wondered what kind of jobs are returning in 2021 after the massive losses of the pandemic. What employment will exist five or 10 years from now, she asked, and what might that mean for those hoping to increase mobility?
If you don’t have the employer participation, you don’t have the training that is tailored to a job that exists.
“The programs that make that connection combine the private sector, the employer, the community college, and the high schools,” said Robert Doar, president of the American Enterprise Institute. “If you don’t have the employer participation, you don’t have the training that is tailored to a job that exists. You also need to say to young people that there are other paths to success in addition to a four-year college degree.”
Poo cited anxiety, already building prior to the pandemic, about the future of jobs and work in America and to what extent employment would be replaced by artificial intelligence, using the home health care industry as an example.
“There’s a growing aging population in this country that needs care and prefers to receive it in the home,” Poo said. “And we don’t have a workforce in place to support it. [Those] doing this work earn an average of $18K per year. We lose even our best, most dedicated care workers to other service professions.”
“COVID further separated the haves from the have-nots,” Rubenstein said. “We have a two-class society even more. If you didn’t have broadband at home, you really suffered and you fell into what I call a crater. All the programs that will come out of the federal government, they won’t be enough to deal with the problems that people at the lower end of the economic strata suffered from.”
Doar highlighted the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and recent data illustrating that that aid helped reverse the number of people living with food insecurity and in poverty.
It was, Doar said, “a sign that our troubled democracy can sometimes provide assistance.”
The panelists also discussed voting rights and access, redistricting within states, and how we might allow for more equity in voting.
“It used to be that democracy meant some type of compromise,” Rubenstein said. “Today, we have a concept where you have to win 100 percent of what you want, and you can’t compromise, or you are seen as weak. It’s tearing apart the bonds of our democracy to the extent where I haven’t seen since the Civil War.”
How much creativity, talent, and brilliance are left on the table because of inequities that we haven’t addressed?
In addition to compromise, bold solutions are needed, Poo said.
“How much creativity, talent, and brilliance are left on the table,” Poo asked, “because of inequities that we haven’t addressed?”