The American Dream

(Editor's Note: This letter originally appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Foodsharing. To download a PDF of the full newsletter, visit our Newsletters page.)

I have always enjoyed being with all types of people and being part of their conversations. It began at an early age.

Growing up in a small town, I spent much of my childhood with my granddad who was also the town manager, police chief, dog catcher, fireman, and the guy everyone looked to if anything needed to be done.  My grandparents’ house was also the place where many people gathered at the end of the day. There was always a pot of coffee on the stove and my grandmother seemed to inevitably have a homemade pie on hand. The talk centered around things familiar to everyone who lives in small town communities  – the weather, crops, family, who was sick or acting badly in town, and how the world was going.  Their news was limited to the newspaper and three television network channels, but mostly it came from word of mouth – what someone heard at the barber shop or local café that day.

There always seemed to be humor, and we laughed a lot.  But there was also serious concern about our neighbors in need. Somehow, it didn’t seem to matter whether the people needing help were “different” from us. It seemed everyone just wanted to help.

I have taken this love of being with people and listening to their stories into adulthood.  Working at the Food Bank has allowed me to move among all types of people – the rich and poor, the powerful and powerless, urban, suburban and rural – people of every culture, religion and political persuasion.  The remarkable thing is how similar we all are.

When talking with those who have done well – who have gained wealth, influence and the recognition that accomplishment brings – I hear them speak about hard work, family values, risk-taking and their sense of having sustained through trials and tribulations.  They often worry that someone or something will take what they have worked so hard to gain. The government is usually their greatest concern, but also the “other” people – those whom they perceive as lazy and unwilling to work, or those with different backgrounds or cultures whom they perceive don’t share their history or values. They remember a time when there was something to believe in and work hard for, and they would love to have it back again.

When I talk with those who have had a challenging time in life - the unemployed, the under employed, and those who have been dealt a bad hand through disabilities, a lack of education, a lack of strong role models or opportunities to do better - they articulate a similar love of values and accomplishment, but it’s expressed differently.  They fear that they will never make progress, that they are “stuck.”  They worry that no matter how hard they work, things will not change for them.  They worry for their children and often their parents whom they have to take care of.  They often experience one closed door after another and perceive a government that is influenced or even owned by the rich and powerful.  But they also have pride in their work, their families, and they too strive incredibly hard to make things better.  They too want to experience the American dream.

But I rarely hear these two groups saying they could learn from each other. Rarely does either group talk about shared values, common challenges, or how working together toward the same goals would allow everyone to progress.  So the distance between class, race, geography, education, politics and accomplishment often acts as a barrier that sometimes seems insurmountable. And this is where storytelling and listening closely to others can play a critical role.

As the economy begins to build back the jobs that were lost during the recession, we can celebrate that we are making progress. The troubling news is of the 30 occupation categories projecting the greatest growth in the next eight years, the job at the top of the list, with projected 48.8% growth, pays below the poverty level - the “personal care aide” who cares for aging baby boomers in their houses or in nursing homes takes home $19,000 a year.* Even more disturbing, the pay for one third of the jobs on the list is below, at or just above the poverty level. These occupations include childcare workers, laborers, janitors, maids, groundskeepers, retail salespersons and fast food service workers. They typically receive no benefits, and about 40 percent of them must rely on food stamps, Medicaid and local food banks to make ends meet. 

This group needs sustained help, not because they are lazy, but because most of the fastest growing jobs don’t pay a living wage anymore.  This is not the story we often hear when policy makers talk about wanting to cut benefits and condemn those who need extra help.  And it’s not the story we tend to hear in polite conversations.

I wonder what would happen if the two groups could listen more closely to each other in a place safe enough to reach beyond “polite” without throwing daggers? I wonder what would happen if there was an opportunity for them to tell their stories to one another, and share their greatest fears, and dreams? I am not naïve to think that all we need to do is talk to each other.  At the same time I don’t think we will make progress without forums for hearing and understanding each other’s experience and point of view.

These kinds of discussions can be accomplished by creating opportunities at every level of government, business, neighborhood, and civic organization. Our boards need to be more diverse, our meetings need to be more open, and trust in our leaders must be earned based on deeds, not promises.  Most importantly, we need the discipline to think and work for the long haul.

It’s not so helpful to just talk to those who agree with us, or share the very same perspective. In those cases we can work ourselves up into a state of fear, anger, and hopelessness.

Simone Weil, the French philosopher has said “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

It takes time, patience and a willingness to be with another. Maybe we just need to sit down together and have a cup of coffee and a piece of pie. Whether it’s on a front porch, a coffee house or in a meeting room doesn’t really matter. What matters is a greater effort to hear and understand each other.

Little will be achieved if we work in our silos and stand in the corner pointing at one another as the oppressor or enemy.  We will have to listen between the lines – at what is in our heart and at what people are trying to say.  The American dream can be alive and well again, but we need to take the time to both celebrate our history and collectively work on our shared future. This is what our leaders owe us and what we owe each other.

-Bill Bolling, Executive Director

*Source: U.S. Dept. of Labor Bureau of labor Statistics 2012-2022.