America's Choice: Learned Helplessness or Earned Opportunity

Posted: Dec 03, 2012 12:01 AM
America's Choice: Learned Helplessness or Earned Opportunity

If Alexis de Tocqueville were to have written Democracy in America today, he might have shared an entirely different perception of America. He would have found too many of our citizens suffering from the depression of our age--"Learned helplessness." Rather than believing that they have what it takes to invent their own future and claiming the mantle of self-reliance and earned opportunity that made America great, they look to government for support.

America was built on "inalienable," God-given rights that for the first time in recorded history affirmed that all men are created equal. An individual's fate was not determined by who his father or country of origin was, but by his own freely chosen pursuit of his own ambitions.

In Thomas Jefferson's original draft of the Declaration of Independence, he used the word "property" instead of "pursuit of happiness." Americans wanted the freedom to apply their own talents, character and initiative to produce the unequal outcomes they earned in their own "pursuit of happiness." As a result, we've beckoned to those in the world willing to dream to come, work hard, and share in the limitless opportunities our country offered. And they came.

Americans railed against confiscatory taxes. They were a strong, confident people who unleashed the most powerful economy in history. They weren't enticed by the egalitarian spread of socialism and communism. They didn't hate the rich; they wanted to join their ranks. Why? Because they knew of millions who had bettered their lot in this great country.

While our mainline news focuses on negative news and what's wrong with America and many churches clamor for social justice and policies of redistribution, the American Dream is sold as an outdated myth! "Experts" say that "trickle-down" economics doesn't work.

But they can't refute the facts that a growing economy does raise all boats and that becoming "rich" in America is not a closed private club. Empirical evidence shows that people still move up and down the earnings ladder. Michael Cox and Richard Alm of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas published "By Our Own Bootstraps" analyzing the income of "poor" Americans over time.

“The University of Michigan Panel Survey of Income Dynamics tracks the income of 3,725 individuals...for the 17 years from 1975 to 1991. And the U.S. Treasury similarly tracked income patterns over a nine-year period--1979 to 1988--using an entirely different database, the income tax returns from 14,351 representative households. Both tracking studies reveal overwhelming upward mobility for almost all Americans. In the Michigan study, only 5 percent of those in the bottom quintile in 1975 were still there in 1991. In contrast, over 80 percent of this original 'poor' segment made it to the middle class or better.... Indeed, 29 percent of them reached the top quintile. To generalize from this study, over several decades only 1 out of 20 'poor' Americans will stay poor, while 13 will become 'middle class' and 6 will become 'rich.'"

They continue: "Similarly, the Treasury study showed that 86 percent of the bottom quintile moved to a higher one, with two-thirds reaching the `middle class’ or above, and almost 15 percent making it to the top quintile. Since the Michigan study covered a period almost twice as long as the Treasury study, it’s not surprising that its results were more dramatic. Upward mobility is an ongoing process that gathers momentum with time. The message is clear: This is the land of opportunity, and if you're not getting yours, don't complain. Go to school."

Try a more recent study of income mobility during the Clinton/Bush years. The U.S. Treasury Study--"Income Mobility in the US from 1996 to 2005"--found that those with very high incomes in 1996--the top 1/100 or 1 percent--had their incomes halved by 2005. They were not getting ahead at the expense of others; many were making less. Those in the top 20% increased 10 percent. Those originally in the bottom 20 percent saw a 91 percent increase in income. In short, there is no permanent over-class, and once "poor" Americans do improve their position over time.

I and others are working with the Napoleon Hill Foundation to update his message for a new generation. Napoleon Hill's "Think and Grow Rich" was a tonic for those dreamers who were willing to find their own way out of the Great Depression. What he said then could be said today:

"There is a theory which pops up again and again that the opportunities for success are fewer not what they were in the past, that our nation has reached the plateau of its success, that the world is dominated by people who already have money, and that success is a finite realm already filled to capacity. This is nothing more than a theory. There is no scarcity of opportunity. There is only a shortage of imagination. Countless people gain new wealth every year, whether the economy is prospering or ailing. The only limits they recognize are those within their own minds. Anyone who cries, 'no opportunity' is simply issuing an alibi for his or her own unwillingness to assume responsibility and use imagination. Offering a useful good or service is just as valuable now as it ever was, and new areas in which to do so open up every day."

President Obama may be making it tougher with policies that entice people to depend more on the government and take more from those who have applied their own initiative and drive to succeed. But the man in the White House does not determine your future. You do. Spend less time watching and waiting on Washington and get busy finding your place in America's still promising future!

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