A demonstrator on Wall Street holds a sign announcing the end of the American Dream. (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)

Writing Contest Finalist

We’re delighted to announce the winners of The Nation’s eighth annual Student Writing Contest. This year we asked students to answer this question in 800 words: It’s clear that the political system in the US isn’t working for many. If you had to pick one root cause underlying our broken politics, what would it be and why? We received close to 700 submissions from high school and college students in forty-two states. We chose one college and one high school winner and ten finalists total. The winners are Jim Nichols (no relation to The Nation’s John Nichols), an undergraduate at Georgia State University; and Julia Di, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Darnestown, Maryland, and Bryn Grunwald, a recent graduate of the Peak to Peak Charter in Boulder, Colorado, who were co-winners in the high school category. The three winners receive cash awards of $1,000 and the finalists $200 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. Read all the winning essays here.   —The Editor

It was the 1970s, and Michael Skladany was spending his summers working at a steel mill on the outskirts of Cleveland. It was backbreaking work. But the son of blue-collar, working class parents knew that it would pay for his college education.

Forty years later, Dr. Skladany told his story to his introductory sociology class. And all 100 students laughed.

We laughed because it was preposterous to imagine saving up for an entire year’s worth of tuition, plus housing, with a summer job. We laughed because steel mills in Cleveland have been laying off thousands of workers, not hiring them. And we laughed, perhaps ruefully, because many of us attending our public university in Ohio have to work two or three jobs in addition to taking a full course load during the year.

What happened between the 1970s and now that could have caused such a drastic difference? The answer lies in a political, economic and social trend that has put the United States on track to the worst economic inequality since the Gilded Age: neoliberalism.

“The main achievement of neoliberalism has been to redistribute, rather than regenerate, wealth and income,” writes David Harvey in his book, A Brief History of Neoliberalism. That school of thought has steadily worked its way through the cracks and crevices of U.S. public policy since the 1970s. It has eliminated the social safety net and replaced it with tax cuts for the rich, privatization of public institutions and subsidies for corporations, thereby creating a class of the unimaginably wealthy. CEO-to-worker pay has increased 1,000 percent since 1950. The earnings of the top one percent of U.S. citizens have tripled since 1979, while wages for the middle class have stagnated.

And the redistribution facts are grim. In a 2012 series called “The Unequal States of America,” Reuters found that the Bush income tax cuts, which were marketed as beneficial to the poor and middle class, actually redistributed almost $2 trillion to high earners over the last decade. Other neoliberal policies, such as privatization of prisons, are marketed as cost-effective to states, but they come at a great human cost. Since the 1980s, U.S. incarceration rates have quadrupled, even though the crime rate has been on the decline. As of 2001, one in six black men in the United States had been incarcerated. The NAACP estimates that if current trends continue, one in three black men born today will spend time in prison at some point in their lives.

Neoliberalism is the main cause of our broken political system because we cannot have a functioning, participatory democracy while simultaneously eliminating jobs, imprisoning huge segments of our population, and saddling the next generation with mountains of student loan debt. Consider today’s working class families. Richard Wolff, in Capitalism Hits the Fan, writes that they have to send more family members to work as the standard of living continues to rise. To keep pace, they work more hours, take on more credit card debt, and take out college and home-ownership loans. That increases stress, anxiety and depression, resulting in a generation of pharmaceutical-addicted workaholics who genuinely believe their inability to transcend class lines is their own fault. This flawed, meritocratic system has caused “failing, distrusted institutions, massive inequality and an increasingly detached elite,” writes Chris Hayes in his book Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy.

The colossal divide between the haves and the have-nots is partly due to the skyrocketing costs of higher education, which was once the great catalyst for social mobility. Now, it is nearly impossible to imagine a time when middle- and working-class families could afford to send their children to college. Last year, Chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education Virginia Foxx told radio host (and convicted criminal) G. Gordon Liddy that she has “very little tolerance for people who tell me that they graduate with $200,000 of debt or even $80,000 of debt because there’s no reason for that. We live in an opportunity society and people are forgetting that.” What opportunity is there for poor and middle class students whose only choice is between paying off student loan debt for the rest of their lives, or not going to college at all?

There is no opportunity — and no democracy — when neoliberalism is the hegemonic political paradigm of the day. We cannot rely on our broken political system to create meaningful, lasting change when the people elected to represent us also represent an elite group who are disenfranchising an entire portion of the population while making social mobility through education nearly impossible.

For those of us continuing to fight for the American Dream, a concentrated effort to combat neoliberalism at every juncture is the only thing that will fix our broken politics.