Is the United States in decline? With protesters in the streets, Washington in gridlock and our economy on life support, it's easy to understand why the question is being asked a lot these days. But, as an old saying goes, where you stand depends on where you sit.
Yes, our nation is in decline, said more than two-thirds of American voters in a recent poll by the Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, and Pulse Opinion Research, an independent polling firm. And, a clear majority, 57 percent, said they think the next generation will be worse off than this one.
Yet, a closer look reveals levels of pessimism varied sharply by race and political party. Republicans were more pessimistic than Democrats and blacks were much sunnier than whites.
An overwhelming 90 percent of Republicans said they thought the U.S. is declining, compared to fewer than half (47 percent) of Democrats. And two-thirds of Republicans but only 45 percent of Democrats feared today's kids will be worse off than their parents.
"Oddly enough," the Hill reported in its news pages, "African-Americans -- who were hammered much harder by the recession than whites -- are more optimistic about the direction of the country."
Actually, it is not that "odd" when you consider how much, despite the current economic woes, the long-range future of African-Americans looks better than it used to. Ironically, in the same post-1960s era that the U.S. has been losing its manufacturing base to overseas workers, walls of discrimination against nonwhites are breaking down. Through education and job-training, the black middle class grew rapidly.
I think that helps explain why only 30 percent of the black respondents in the Hill's poll said the United States is on the slip-and-slide, versus 74 percent of whites. Similarly, fewer than a third of black voters (31 percent) think today's youths will suffer greater hardships than their parents, versus almost two-thirds (60 percent) of white respondents.
Intermediate string overflow Cannot justify line Meanwhile the gap between the upper and lower income brackets has widened sharply and steadily since the mid-1970s, along with the difficulty faced by youngsters who want to bridge the gap.
The news is not quite as stark as the "1 percent versus 99 percent" rhetoric of the Occupy Wall Street movement puts it, Terry J. Fitzgerald, a vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, recently wrote on the bank's website. Middle-class income has gone up over the past 30 years, too, although at a slower rate. But further down the income scale, the news gets increasingly bleak.
The real problem, then, is not the income gap but the opportunity gap. Like me, many of my classmates were the first in their families to go to college. In our conversations about the good old days, someone inevitably comes back to the real problem: "Education is the key. We've got to do something about the schools."
Indeed, a number of studies find that the European nations where many of my classmates' ancestors came from have been able to hold on to upward mobility better than we Americans have, simply by investing in education.
We won't close the opportunity gap by demonizing government or the private sector. Instead, we should persuade both to work together. Otherwise, we won't have to ask whether America is in decline. We'll know it is.