By Frank Wessling
It may not be “class warfare” in a strict sense, but the evidence for something like that keeps coming. Life in our America just gets harder for people who start out with less, while it gets cushier for those with more.
This is supposed to be the land of opportunity, where any poor boy or girl who worked hard and studied could build a good life. We showed this especially in the decades immediately following World War II and its legacy of national unity. The GI Bill supported military veterans in getting a college education, buying homes and investing in business. Then the civil rights revolution bubbled up in the 1950s and ‘60s as black people in the South took a stand for universal human dignity.
We continued with a vision of equal opportunity until its spiritual partner, fair sharing, crumbled during the 1980s and following. We became complacent, and greed, always lurking, was allowed a respectable hearing. The dismal and sad result is now well known: a very few of us are doing very well while most of us work harder just treading water and a growing number of us slide backward.
The latest evidence comes from higher education, the schooling which is supposed to be the key to good jobs and a secure future. Both tax-supported public aid and college priorities no longer support students from poor families and those of modest means as they once did. The needier student is coming out of school with a mountain of debt to carry. This affects choice of work, credit rating, and sometimes the ability to marry.
The value of Pell Grants, the basic federal aid to poor students, has fallen since 1980 as college cost has risen. According to Education Week, the maximum Pell Grant paid 77 percent of the cost at a public four-year college 32 years ago. Now it covers only 36 percent. In the same period, such support for study at a community college dropped from 99 to 62 percent of cost, and at private four-year schools from 36 percent to 15.
While this decline in federal support was going on, states also reduced their share of tax funding for higher education and shifted away from need-based funding. More support now goes to targeted programs that ignore students’ financial situation.
Colleges themselves, both public and private, have also shifted. Overall, they now invest much more in the education of students from the top income group, that 20 percent whose families can afford to pay more. Our public colleges and universities spent more than twice as much on needy students 30 years ago as they did on the wealthy. Such spending is now about equal.
Private schools have also shifted from a time when they invested equally in needy students and the well-off. Now they put almost $2 into the affluent for every $1 that supports the poor.
Meanwhile, during three decades of changing priorities, college tuition and fees went up an astounding 439 percent on average while the median American income rose only 147 percent.
Individual virtue or its lack has had little to do with this trend. It happened because we allowed public policy to support division rather than unity of purpose and real equality in opportunity. After we lost the external threat of Soviet communism in the early 1990s, a new world order that we call globalism seemed to require a revival of grasping competitive fires on an international playing field. Concern for fairness, equity, equality, justice — however the better angels of the human spirit are named — took a back seat to material advantage and power.
Now we have the 99 percent and the 1 percent. Some lack of personal virtue can be found in the way all of this has played out, certainly: some greed at the lower end of the spectrum and some distraction in small pleasures at the other end. Both are part of the social currents in which we swim and both do damage to healthy community life. But the evidence is overwhelming that our real failure is communal.
We live so much for short-term individual advantage and pleasure, with a limited vision to match, that the common good is easily forgotten or ignored. The Catholic vision has a preferential option for the poor in the foreground. There was once some of that in our vision of equality as Americans. It’s so yesterday now.