When Parents Lead, Children Succeed

Op-Ed: Are We Still Enabling the American Dream?

Op-Ed: Are We Still Enabling the American Dream?

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For generations of people coming to this country, the United States has been referred to as “The Land of Opportunity.” Ours is a country in which assertion of that opportunity--vision, hard work and dedication- enables a person to improve their circumstances. The exigencies of the Great Depression dealt a blow to American’s faith in the American Dream, though. In order to alleviate the fear of desperate poverty inevitable for most of the elderly at the time, President Roosevelt signed into law the Social Security Act of 1935, which also included the first national welfare system. In addition to the elderly, the hope was to help the hundreds of thousands of workers roaming the country in search of work and shelter, and the women and families desperate for food in the midst of economic catastrophe that defied description. The programs would prove to be very effective. Since then, however, and despite every shift in the American economy, the country’s entitlement programs have continued to expand. Let’s take a look at the numbers.

Definitions According to Webster:

  1. Work: “activity in which one exerts strength or faculties to do or perform something.”
  2. Enable: “to make (someone or something) able to do or to be something; or to make (something) possible, practical or easy”.
  3. Entitle: “to give a title to (something, such as a book); or to give a right to (someone)”.
  4. Opportunity: “a favorable juncture of circumstances; or a good chance for advancement or progress”

Using current U.S. government data, there are about 115 million households in America with a median household income from work of about $53,000. Excluding social security and healthcare, the Federal government and States provide over $650 billion in welfare entitlements (food and nutrition assistance, housing assistance, supplemental income, tax credits, and unemployment benefits.) Put another way, every American household that is above the poverty line is providing an average of $6,700 to the households that are below the poverty line. Certainly those with higher incomes are providing more and those with lower incomes less. In addition, regardless of income, most give to charities or to their church to help those in need. If you were asked (instead of taxed) to regularly allocate $6,700 of your annual income for the continuous assistance of people you are not acquainted with, would you? Would you make the same choices for money distribution that our government does?

Let’s take another look at the numbers. After World War II, a bit less than 1.5% of GDP was spent on welfare and relief programs. Today about 3% of GDP is spent on similar programs. Accounting for inflation and population growth, we are now spending about five times what we were on the entitlement programs (and that doesn’t even include social security or medical care), yet there are more people who are receiving public assistance than ever before. The current system is not enabling people to get back on their feet.

What does that mean with regard to our entitlement system in America? It’s clearly necessary to help people who need a “hand-up”, as President Johnson said in the beginning of his 1964 Great Society campaign. But with shockingly little accountability for utilizing the system, nor requirements to earn or show benefit, the system now allows for capable people to permanently retreat from the workforce and live almost exclusively on public assistance. Our country spends five times more now than at the end of World War II, but still the amount of money given out does not support people to move out of dependency and into self-sufficiency, according to the public records. While the intent of these programs was to enable persons to improve their lives, it seems we are steadily entitling more and more people to expect more resources. Are we providing the right type of resources?

Richard Stephens, the father of B2W’s Co-Founder, Rick Stephens, used to say, “everything comes to he who waits, so long as he who waits works like hell while he waits!” Having fought in the Chosin Reservoir of the Korean Conflict, the Senior Mr. Stephens left the Marine Corps with next to nothing. He worked hard, started businesses, made money, lost it all, and fought his way back not once, but multiple times. Along with his wife, he put three kids on a solid foundation. Not an easy task then or now. But his is not a unique situation. We all are part of or know similar stories. During Roosevelt’s time, public assistance was established for the destitute. Today, though, examples abound of many on public assistance referring to the 1st and 3rd of each month as the days they collect their “paychecks”…as if the assistance is a job with no work required.

Work is an enabler. It helps us define our own value and self-worth. On a personal level, think about the young people in your life. Do they receive a regular allowance or are they given money based on work effort? Do they understand that everything in life demands an exchange? Often, with a regular allowance, that payment is the young person’s only source of income. A regulated, predetermined amount shapes their views and options about how and when the money is spent. Money that covers only their wants, for example, instead of their needs, means they have no view of the real, long-term implications of how much they need to achieve independence. If they receive the same amount on a regular basis, it can become more of an entitlement than an enabler. Persons who are provided the opportunity for accomplishing work, however, are required to take action. More importantly, they have the opportunity to dream about “what if” or “what can be” if they do more, work more, or accomplish more. The more they work, the more they are enabled.

Our role as parents is to create an environment where our children are enabled so they can define their own worth and value, and so that they do not become entitled and reliant on someone else the rest of their lives. As adults and citizens it is normal to want to respond to people in our midst who need special help. The Dalai Lama is often cited for his thoughts on human compassion and the natural desire existing in all of us to help. At a conference in Vancouver, Canada, in September of 2006, attended by B2W Co-founders, Elane V. Scott and Rick Stephens, when asked about what happens when compassion isn’t enough to make change, the Dalai Lama replied, “Compassion that does not yield change in those to whom it is directed can lead to a worsening of their lives as they come to expect less of themselves and more of others.”

For the millions of people who came to the United States in search of the American Dream, their skills and desire to succeed were their collateral and a ticket to a prosperous life. America’s environment provided opportunity. Opportunity hasn’t gone away, but it has changed. Participation is still open to everyone with a firm commitment to work, learning and who possess a desire to build this country and their own lives in this land of opportunity. Let’s work together and earn it!

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