The Great Opportunity Rip Off

by , posted on Friday, July 27th, 2012 at 12:45 pm

I am a first generation American. My father was born in 1918 on a small island off the coast of Norway. He never finished high school. I grew up poor in the middle of a wealthy area of the Chicago suburbs dreaming about going to college with no financial ability to do so. I saw education as a way to climb out of our poverty and a sure ticket into the middle class.

I was taught that America is the land of opportunity and all I had to do was work for it. And so I did.

I worked two part-time jobs to fund my first year of college. Then I got married and 3 children intervened. When I was set to return to school, Reagan had just taken office and access to loans and grants had all but dried up. And so, without knowing anything about non-violent direct civil action, I did my first act of non-violent direct civil action.

I walked into our local bank and asked for a student loan. They said no. They said they don’t do that anymore. I continued that morning up the chain of command until I sat before the Vice President of the bank asking for a student loan.

“Well, we don’t do that anymore,” he said. In the midst of my grief, I took a deep breath and looked down at the ground. I saw my purse and inside it my small reporter’s notebook. At the time, I was a ‘stringer’ for a newspaper, earning $25 a story for about 10 hours of work. Without even thinking, I picked up my notebook and told him I was a reporter for the local paper and was going to interview him for a story I was writing about why a local bank is not going to give a local resident a student loan.

“We will give you your student loan,” he said, without so much as a three second pause. That was years ago when banks still had a sense of community and a sense of shame.

I got my degree and my husband and I were able to get our daughters through college. But when my oldest daughter became divorced and lost everything financially, she and her three children had to move in with me. She had spent the past 10 years raising children. But with the changes in our economy, her degree was no longer wanted in our marketplace. And so she is starting her life over again at age forty without a degree.

I had been so sure college would guarantee financial security and a ticket into the middle class. I was wrong. All that I had worked for to ensure a better life for my children and my grandchildren was taken away in one generation by the 1%.

We are the 99%.

I was able to barely grab opportunity at the dawn of the Reagan years but now my daughter and my grandchildren, no matter how hard they work, have what I call the ‘Deck of Opportunity’ stacked against them. This is the great opportunity rip off.

Jon Stewart, of The Daily Show, calls it the “Wealth Incumbency,” where the wealthy create the rules that restrict access to opportunity to those that already possess wealth.

Joseph Stiglitz, in his book, ‘The Price of Inequality,’ makes the case that we now have in our country the least equality of opportunity of all advanced countries—even worse than what was possible in ‘Old Europe’ centuries ago. Stiglitz states that we have institutionalized the advantages of opportunity to the wealthy.

The damning issue is not inequality of wealth, but inequality of opportunity. Our nation was founded on equality of opportunity, but we have most assuredly lost that foundation.

We need to look no further than the last forty years of the Republican Party assault on the middle class as the culprit in this very real crime against average Americans.


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