Columnist Olin Rose-Bardawil: American dream out of reach for many

Homeless advocates check inside tents at McPherson Square in Washington in February 2023 before a homeless encampment was cleared by the National Park Service.

Homeless advocates check inside tents at McPherson Square in Washington in February 2023 before a homeless encampment was cleared by the National Park Service. AP

Olin Rose-Bardawil

Olin Rose-Bardawil


Published: 05-09-2024 5:30 PM

We live in a society that often tells us to form opinions that neatly conform to one ideological side or the other. Yet when it comes to the most important issues, it can be unhelpful to come to such rigid conclusions. F. Scott Fitzgerald was right when he noted that the “truest sign of intelligence is the ability to entertain two contradictory ideas simultaneously.”

For me, there is one area that stands out when it comes to holding seemingly contradictory beliefs, and it is the tension between seeking equality and promoting competition that often comes up when we discuss the American dream.

I am a naturally competitive person — I often feel the need to accomplish goals not only for the sake of the goals themselves, but to prove to myself that I can work harder than those around me. The competitive side of me embodies the attitude that “anyone can be successful if they really try.” Admittedly, one of my flaws is holding others to the same standards I hold myself to.

There is another side of me, though, which is more understanding. It is this side that recognizes that most people are doing their best and understands that social oppression can play major roles in peoples’ outcomes in life.

Upward social mobility has been highly achievable multiples times throughout our nation’s history. In the 1950s, for example, 90 percent of people would end up becoming wealthier than their parents. If you look at kids who were born in the 1980s, however, that number has fallen below 50 percent. According to Raj Chetty, a Harvard economist, this means one has “a 50-50 shot” of achieving the American dream.

Often, when I feel compelled to judge members of society who live in poverty, it is because I want to believe that the promise of the American dream is available to everyone, and that people should therefore be able to prosper simply by working hard.

But you only have to look around to see that this idealistic view is far from the truth. Just a few months ago, I was in Washington D.C. While there, I was shocked by the vast number of homeless encampments throughout the city. There are parks around the National Mall that are completely filled with tents and other temporary shelters.

The juxtaposition of homeless encampments with the powerful structures of D.C., including the Washington Monument and the Capitol dome, was difficult to make sense of. How can the United States display such confidence as a global superpower, when thousands are without shelter just blocks away from the Capitol? The intended permanence of D.C.’s great monuments is an inspiring testament to the opportunities this country holds, but seeing the city’s blatant inequality is a reminder of how inaccessible these opportunities are to so many.

Homelessness is becoming increasingly common even among employed and “middle class” Americans, a fact that once could have sparked common outrage. This is highlighted in a New York Times documentary, aptly titled “Criminalizing Homelessness Won’t Make It Go Away,” which chronicles everyday peoples’ descent into homelessness.

One woman in the documentary, named Brenda, became homeless despite living for decades as a responsible citizen. “I worked for 35 years, I’m a college graduate, I have never been arrested — and I still sleep on the sidewalk,” she explained. People like Brenda do everything right, and yet they still end up living lives poles apart from those who occupy the very top of the economic ladder.

I have begun to wonder if these stories of inequality should call into question the respect and love I have for this country. I have wondered if the two can exist simultaneously.

I believe they can, because we can love our country while still pointing out its flaws — we need to in order to have a true democracy. In the case of American’s current inequality, though, a huge threat is posed to the fabric of this country.

As the economist Joseph E. Stiglitz says, “rather than justice for all, we are evolving into a system of justice for those who can afford it.” In his book “The Price of Inequality,” Stiglitz makes one of the most compelling cases for why inequality threatens our economy and democracy.

Justice is a cornerstone of the American dream. So, for it to be only accessible to those at the very top proves that the American dream has effectively been cut off from most Americans.

Considering this, the response to those struggling to make ends meet must be one of understanding. Competition and meritocracy are great things, but I have come to realize that you can’t have competition if some people can’t even play the game. And right now, more and more people can’t.

Olin Rose-Bardawil of Florence is a new columnist whose writings from a youth perspective appear monthly in the Gazette. He is a student at the Williston Northampton School and the editor in chief of the school’s newspaper, The Willistonian.