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The United States of America is known by its citizens as the greatest country in the world, bar none. This belief has been drilled into our consciousness at a young age, and continues to be repeatedly enforced by the media we consume. We are the number one economy in the world, though lord knows how much longer that will last before China overtakes us. By some measures, China is already the number one economy, though the Chinese remain hesitant in claiming the mantle. Income inequality is currently at record levels, with most of the wealth gains going to the upper .01% of society. Meanwhile, the job market is completely in the shitter–official statistics have been massaged and twisted beyond recognition, as more and more Americans struggle to make ends meet on stagnant wages and dead end jobs. Is the American Dream really dead? Did they lie to us all those years, just to get us to quietly work for peanuts in the vain hope that some day, we too shall get our piece of the pie?

To be fair, it didn’t use to be a lie. At one time, the American middle class really was the envy of the world. During the 50’s and 60’s, the conditions were favorable to any citizen who wanted to climb the social and economic ladder: a good college education was cheap and affordable, unions still had leverage and could protect worker rights, health care costs were still somewhat reasonable, and high paying jobs had yet to be outsourced. An employee could reasonably expect to be taken care of by the company in return for lifetime corporate loyalty. Job security was the norm rather than the exception.

Of course, it wasn’t a social nirvana for all Americans. The 60’s era was a tumultuous time in American society, as women, gays, and racial minorities agitated for their place at the table. The country has definitely made plenty of social progress despite the continued existence of severe racial and gender discrimination. Unfortunately, the nation has undeniably devolved in terms of economic justice and mobility. The economic hierarchy is calcifying into a modern day feudal system, where a good education, employment opportunities, financial stability, and personal freedom are privileges of the rich rather than an inalienable right of every citizen regardless of socioeconomic status.

The Penalties Of Poverty

Here in America, the system really goes out of its way to punish and traumatize you for being poor. Many municipalities actually target the poor for its funding schemes, just so financially comfortable people don’t have to pay more taxes for expected social services. Though debtor’s prisons are technically illegal, the possibility of going to jail for fines you can’t afford to pay are very real in many parts of the country. Instead of incarcerating offenders who commit serious or violent crimes, jails are now being filled with people whose real crime is not having the money to pay fines right away.

In today’s America, if you are poor you are most likely going to stay poor. Life costs more when you are poor, because the system has perverse incentives built in to keep you poor. From escalating fines and financial penalties levied on people who can least afford them, to a taxation system that privileges income from investments over income from work, it’s pretty clear that the system is deeply stacked against the financially disadvantaged.

The College Loan Ball And Chain

My generation grew up hearing that the best way to move up the social and income ladder is to get a college education. Today, it is just another way of convincing the poor to volunteer for debt bondage. The average student loan debt is $30,000, which can be very difficult to pay off in today’s shaky job market. Unlike credit card debt, it cannot be discharged in bankruptcy–which means that loan obligations can (and do) follow debtors to the grave. And to add insult to irony, about 46% of recent college graduates are currently employed in jobs that don’t even require college degrees. Defaulting on the loan permanently damages a debtor’s credit score, which can affect the ability to rent an apartment and buy a car. It can even kill employment prospects, since credit checks by employers count as legal and reasonable discrimination.

Raising Healthy Children With Good Prospects Is A Class PrivilegeĀ 

Though the Affordable Care Act has increased the number of insured citizens, it hasn’t succeeded in actually making healthcare affordable. For the typical American family, rising health care costs means less money for everything else–which affects where they can afford to live, how much they can spend on food, and discretionary spending on vacations and consumer items. Paid maternity leave is nonexistent for 51% of new mothers, which is usually a perk reserved for more privileged female employees. Child care costs have skyrocketed, and can cost as much as “$14,508 annually for an infant, or $12,280 annually for a four-year-old” with no guarantee of standardized quality. Public education, which is funded by income, sales, and property taxes, has been hit hard by declining wages and discretionary income. Conversely, private education is as expensive and unaffordable as ever for the average family. Annual private high school tuition averages around $13,500 in the southern states, compared to $29,000 in the western states and over $30,000 (!) for the northeastern states.

Is Serfdom The New Normal?

All indications point to a yes, unfortunately. In the theoretical land of the free, the only real choice for the underclass is to acquire backbreaking debt for the privilege of working it off for the rest of their natural lives. Upward income and social mobility through marriage is an increasingly unlikely option, especially since most Americans prefer to marry those with similar socioeconomic backgrounds. Is there any hope left for the poor and the rapidly disappearing middle class? Perhaps the American Dream is just harder to attain than it used to be, at least according to the stubbornly optimistic. Does the average American truly believe that the best they can expect is a lifetime of corporate vassalage? Though our final fate has yet to be written, our state of slavery is doomed to inevitability should we fail to wake up from this all too American nightmare.