Unpacking the American Dream: Interview with Michael Tanner and Camille Charles

Conducted by Frankie Konner (PZ ’21), Staff Writer

Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the CATO institute, who has focused his research on poverty and welfare policy. He has written many books about public policy, with a particular focus on poverty reform issues. Tanner helped to launch the Project for Social Security Choice, which is considered to be one of the leading plans for the national program.

Camille Charles is the chair of the Africana Studies department at the University of Pennsylvania, and primarily researches racial inequality in terms of public policy. On November 3rd, the two met at the Pomona Student Union for a debate and discussion about income inequality on college campuses. Prior to the panel CJLPP was able to interview the speakers and discuss affirmative action, welfare, and racial injustice, among other issues.

CJLPP: The name of the Pomona Student Union panel this afternoon refers to the “American Dream.” What do you perceive to be the modern American dream, and who is excluded from it? How does access to higher education play into this dream? To what degree does a college education ameliorate social immobility?

Tanner: There are several different parts of that, so let me try to break it down a little bit. I think the “American Dream” is still what it always was, and that is that people are able to become self-sufficient, that they are able to take care of themselves and their family, but most of all that they’re able to become fully actualized human beings in the sense that they are able to rise as far as their talents can take them, that they are able to become all that they can be. If you look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it’s well beyond simply the physical needs at the bottom, it is really the top of the pyramid that we all strive to attain: the ability to be everything that a human being can be. I think that’s still our goal and our dream, and of course we want that for our children and for their children and for future generations.

I think that in general we do have a large section of our society that is not included in that right now. If you look at how poverty is dealt with in this country, we do a pretty decent job of dealing with that bottom rung. We spend a great deal of money dealing with poverty in this country. We spend, at the federal and state level combined, about a trillion dollars every year on anti-poverty programs. The result of that is that we do a fair job of ensuring that people have basic needs. We reduce material poverty to some degree but we don’t do a very good job of enabling people to reach the top rung of that pyramid. We don’t enable people to become self-sufficient; we don’t enable people to take full advantage of their talents and their opportunities. We sort of have a paternalistic attitude towards poverty, through which we keep people in a custodial type of thing where we feed them, house them, and take care of them but we don’t let them become fully actualized human beings. I think that that is a particular problem that we face in this country.

Charles: I don’t think the modern “American Dream” has changed as much as we think it has. I think everybody still wants what has historically been understood as a middle class lifestyle. They want solid, reliable employment that pays a decent wage and has benefits tied to it. They want to to provide for their families. They want their children to have something a little bit better than they had themselves. I think the problem is that it has become more difficult to achieve that for most Americans. In the grand scheme of things, the kind of sacrifice that we’re talking about at the top isn’t nearly the sacrifice that you’re talking about in the middle, much less at the bottom. I think that in theory, civil rights legislation and anti-discrimination legislation has made the dream more accessible to groups that have historically been excluded, but the achievements of those groups are more fragile, more tenuous. We know that with the Great Recession, all of the gains in wealth accumulation that had been achieved among African Americans and Latinos was lost. So despite those whites who say that they are now having their opportunities stunted because of minorities, that’s not really the case. But I think there is something to this idea that whites don’t have the same opportunities that they had even twenty years ago.

CJLPP: Do you believe that the purpose of affirmative action policies is to restitute past inequality or to create a more diverse campus environment? What different implications do these interpretations have?

Tanner: I think both of those are important actually. I think diversity is important in terms of developing a community, because people have different perspectives and different experiences in their life and they bring different things to the community because of those past experiences. Also, we want to be able to interact with people who are different than us. We don’t want to grow up in a little cocoon in which we’ve never had an experience with someone who’s not just like us. I think it’s important to understand that diversity extends beyond racial, gender, sexual orientation; there is diversity of thought as well. We want to be exposed to people who have ideas that are very different than our own as well and that may or may not correspond with other categories but I think it’s very important that we do have those experiences that are beyond ourselves. The whole idea of growing as a human being is that you experience things that you’ve never experienced before and I think that’s very important.

The other aspect of affirmative action, in terms of rectification, I think we need to look at very seriously. The whole idea of rectification is restitution for past misconduct. The fact is that our society has not treated various groups very well. Certainly African Americans—we have a four-hundred-year history of racial oppression. Women have not been treated the same as men, we have treated people with non-conforming genders badly, and we need to make up for the bad behavior we’ve had in the past. The actual implementation of those ideas, however, becomes problematic sometimes, in terms of affirmative action. How do you determine what individual falls into what category? Do we go back to the racist trope of one drop of black blood makes you black? How do we determine who benefits from these programs and who doesn’t? In many cases we have to be careful that we don’t set up such a rigid system under affirmative action that we actually penalize some groups in our society simply because of their racial characteristics or their background. Asians have been limited in many schools. Jews in many schools have been limited in terms of their ability to attend. We’ve got to be careful that we don’t cross boundaries and simply create new forms of discrimination.

Charles: Historically, affirmative action was a recognition of discrimination in virtually all realms of American life and it was intended to force Americans to pay attention to qualified minority applicants. So it was never a quota system, but it was to make sure that those minority individuals who had “played by the rules” and gotten the qualifications and the skills would be treated fairly. We’re not really allowed to do that anymore. It was certainly initially about historic discrimination and exclusion, and I personally believe that we need to be paying attention to historic discrimination and exclusion, not just of African Americans but also of native people, Latinos, and other groups who have experienced some sort of systematic discrimination and exclusion. What we know is that we are currently allowed to pay attention to race to create a diverse environment because we know that diverse environments are better learning environments for everybody. I think that we’ve pivoted, because some folks believe that we’ve already dealt with historic inequality, discrimination, and exclusion and that’s not the thing we need to be paying attention to anymore. So in college admissions now, we want diverse classrooms, in terms of the student body, faculty, and the staff. We want diverse campuses because we know that perspectives are broadened and deepened by having this experience and learning from people who are different from us.

CJLPP: In the wake of President Donald Trump’s election, many people have argued for the recognition of the poor white class in America that faces issues of social immobility and that is often ignored in policy discussions. Are there key differences between this poor white class and people of color’s social mobility prospects? 

Tanner: Yeah, absolutely. I think that at every level if you take people who are similarly situated in other characteristics, whites will always be one-up on a similarly situated African American. Whites may have their problems, but the fact is that African Americans have been treated worse throughout society. You can say that poor whites have many problems with social mobility, they have educational issues, they have issues with their jobs going away and so on. That’s not the same thing as slavery, followed by Jim Crow, followed by the continuing racial oppression that exists today in terms of law enforcement, in terms of educational policy, in terms of housing, and so on. So I certainly think that you’ve got to differentiate between the two.

That said, we can’t overlook the fact that there is a growing divide among whites in terms of class structure and in terms of opportunity. To some extent it’s an age-based phenomenon as well, what we’re seeing is essentially people whose way of life has changed radically in the last few decades. What we’re seeing is that the type of job where you used to be able to drop out of high school, go down to the factory and get to support your family is not there any more, that sort of situation has changed. At the same time, their sort of social fabric is changing: there are now African American families living on their street, their boss is a woman, a gay couple got married in the next neighborhood. What they grew up believing that life was has been turned on its head and that’s very hard for them to accept. People by and large don’t accept change well. 

Charles: They’re not as poor. All of this is relative, but we know that poor whites have more accumulated wealth or access to wealth than middle class and affluent Latinos and African Americans have. I don’t quibble with the idea that there is a segment of the white population that is struggling. I also do think that in many instances when we talk about policy that would benefit those at the bottom, it would benefit them. I think the biggest issue has been that that segment of the white population has been voting against their self-interest for decades, and every time, it gets a little bit worse. The Great Recession was an example of that, because I think that is the first time since the Great Depression that whites experienced unemployment, employment instability, loss of housing, and wealth accumulation at a level that blacks live with everyday and have always lived with. It was the first time, in my lifetime anyway, that white unemployment approached what is normal for blacks in a non-recession period. I don’t think that they don’t exist, and I don’t even think that they are being listened to because they aren’t being listened to. But in some ways, they have followed a political ideology that is not listening to them, that’s pretending to listen to them. We have reached a point where we have to do something different, but the problem is that the people who have benefited from us ignoring working-class whites and being indifferent to their plight and the plight of minorities in the United States have dug us into a pretty deep hole.

CJLPP: Mr. Tanner, one of your central arguments about the failings of the welfare system is that “poverty has been made comfortable.” Can you expand on this?

Tanner: I’m suggesting that we actually do a pretty good job of making poverty—comfortable is not a good word—but less miserable. We actually do a reasonable job with anti-poverty programs in terms of reducing the hardships of poverty. If you go back even to 1965, when Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty and look at the structures in place there, about one third of people didn’t have running water, electricity hadn’t been extended to many poor houses, the number of houses’ whose nutrition needs were not being met is much larger than it is today. Today, very few people are actually starving. We might say that they have food insecurity but they’re not actually starving the way they were at one time. Most of the major problems, in terms of the physical needs, that poor people have are being met, maybe not adequately, but to a large degree. What we’re not doing is enabling people to get out of that, as I said earlier, to climb that rung of actualization and becoming self-sufficient. We seem to be failing at that. We focus too much of our poverty policy simply on those material needs: “should we spend a billion dollars more or a billion dollars less on food stamps?” We do not focus enough on how can we actually change the structures of society in order to enable people to rise.

CJLPP: What measures need to be taken to give all people the opportunity to succeed?

Tanner: Surprisingly, I think these are actually outside of redistribution questions. I think that what we really need to do is make some more structural changes to society. Number one is that we need to change the criminal justice system. I think the fact that the criminal justice system is biased against poor people generally, but minorities in particular, is a continuing, ongoing problem. You can’t take a million and a half young African American men out of society, especially in urban areas, because they are in the criminal justice system. They are under arrest, on probation, have criminal records that may prevent them from getting into a college or getting a job and even renting housing. All of those things criminal records can prevent you from achieving. That, in turn, has its own problems in terms of marriageability. William Julius Wilson, from Harvard, has pointed out that if you basically take a pool of marriageable men out of society it becomes a problem for poor women as well.

I think that we need to reform the education system. I think the fact that we have a K-12 system that largely fails to educate in the inner city is an enormous problem and I think that we need to be looking at the government monopoly on education and how that has failed. I think we need to look at housing, particularly the fact that housing is so expensive that it limits mobility. It prevents people from moving to areas where there might be more jobs or better education, less crime and so on. I think that a big factor in that is government policies in terms of zoning, in terms of land-use regulations, that can add, in some cities, as much as 50 percent of the cost of housing, which is a significant barrier to the poor in terms of their mobility.

I also think we need to look at ways to encourage savings among the poor. Essentially, banking laws penalize the poor. About 20 percent of poor people don’t have identification, which means they can’t open a bank account, which means they are stuck carrying around cash. This either results in they’re vulnerable to robbery or that the police think they’re a drug dealer. They can’t borrow money the way wealthier people can because they don’t have collateral. Basic welfare programs tend to discriminate against the collecting of assets. They basically say that if you spend all of your money, that’s fine, but if you put money away for your kids’ education, they take away your benefits. I think we need to look at those barriers to savings.

Finally, and most importantly, I think we need to look at the whole question of economic growth. Nothing has reduced poverty in the history of mankind as much as economic growth. If you go back to the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries, what you find is that about every American was poor. Even the people that were considered rich would be considered poor by today’s standards. The fact is that we’ve reduced poverty significantly over that period of time and we’ve significantly raised the standard of living of even the poorest among us. This has largely come about not as the result of any government program, but as the result of simply growing the economy and being richer as a society. We need to look at things in society that hold back economic growth, in terms of taxes and regulation overall. In particular, we need to look at the barriers that prevent poor people from fully participating in the economy. Things like occupational licensing laws, things like minimum wage laws, things like occupational zoning, and regulations of childcare. Things of that nature tend to prevent people from being able to get a job, start a business, or otherwise get into the economy and take advantage of the growth that’s out there. We have to have growth, but we also have to have growth distributed across the entire population.

CJLPP: Mr. Tanner, what do you think the government’s role should be in ensuring the quality of education? How can the problems in inner city schools be ameliorated?

Tanner: Studies don’t show any link between the amount of money we spend on education in a school and the outcomes you get for that money. If you look at some of the worst performing school systems in the nation: Chicago, Washington D.C., Baltimore, they are among the cities that spend the most per-child in terms of education. Of course you can argue a little bit chicken and egg there, but the fact is that spending more money doesn’t seem to provide better outcomes. I think that partly is because of our education system, our K-12 system is really kind of mired and concrete. There are very few things that have changed in education over the last couple hundred years. Basically, now we’ve put a computer screen up there or an LCD screen or whatever instead of a blackboard, but the pedagogy is still the same. We don’t see innovation because we don’t see competition. We are high-bound by rules and regulations, including teachers’ unions and the government regulations. I think what we really need to do is open up education to much more competition, much more control by parents, much more choice. Basically, we need to allow poor kids to go to the same schools that rich kids can go to. Right now, you’re very much limited by your geography, and we know that, of course, housing patterns are discriminatory both in terms of class and race. You’re required, in most places, to attend the public school in your neighborhood. Well, that might be a pretty crummy school, and there’s not much you can do about it. I think that people should be able to pick up and go wherever you want. If that means going out to the suburbs, because that’s where the good schools are, you should be able to go there. If you can’t find a good public school, you should be able to go to private school. But you should be able to go to the school that you want to go to, that your parents want you to go to, and I think that would help a great deal.

CJLPP: Do you think charter schools facilitate academic equality or hinder it?

Tanner: I think charter schools are a big help. But they’re still ultimately a government school and still subject to government regulations. If I to draw a pyramid of reform, we should start with simply deregulating the public schools, changing tenure laws, for example, so that bad teachers can be weeded out. Second, we should move to charter schools, so that we can have fewer regulations, more opportunities, more types of schools that are growing up, and parents could take advantage of that. Third, would be some sort of voucher program, but vouchers come with strings, a limit to where they could go, but parents could still move to private schools where they’d have fewer regulations. And lastly, I think scholarship type programs where parents are simply given the money and it doesn’t come directly from the government so it doesn’t have so many strings. The Arizona Scholarship Fund is a good model for that. The fewer regulations, the fewer strings there are. The more choices that parents have, the more control over the money children and parents have. I think that is the answer.

CJLPP: Dr. Charles, what specific aspects of elite institutions do you see as conducive to the greater success of white students than of their minority student equivalents? What actions can colleges take to remedy these structural disadvantages?

Charles: These places are built for white people. So, in a real sense everything about them facilitates their comfort and their success. Part of the problem is that we’ve been tinkering with a system that has been exclusionary to start with and trying to make it fit now. There are some challenges to that, and part of it really is the ghost of affirmative action as it was improperly understood. I think that was purposeful as well, there is still this myth that minorities on campus means that they’ve lowered standards or that some white, or increasingly Asian kid has lost out on a spot that was “theirs”. It’s hard to eradicate that mindset. We spent so much time focused on grades and test scores that now that we want to go back and say, “no, we were always holistic in our approach,” it doesn’t necessarily ring true for certain segments of the population, and we don’t do a good job of messaging that clearly. It’s hard to accept that you didn’t get into Harvard or Yale or Princeton when you did everything that you’re supposed to do and your scores are high and your grades are high and you have all of the activities, but there are lots of people of all colors and all backgrounds who have the same portfolio and didn’t get in because they just don’t have enough seats, and I think it’s gotten easier for us to blame other people than to just look at the math and admit that there are lots of students who don’t get in. I told my own daughter as she was applying to college this fall, aim for Harvard, Princeton, Yale if that’s what you think you might want to do, but understand that you could have all of it and not get in, not because you weren’t good enough but because there just wasn’t enough room for all of the students who were “good enough”. Our inability to get rid of that myth is one of the biggest issues, because then we come onto campus, and white kids are telling minority students that they’re only there because of affirmative action, that creates tension and stress for the students of color, and even faculty of color. It’s a snowball effect, we haven’t been able to completely change who we are to completely move away from our origin, if that’s what you want to call it. And those things take time; we’ve only been seriously trying to do this since 1980.

CJLPP: In your book The Source of the River, you argued that academic preparation is the best predictor of college performance. What specific policies should be enacted to help equalize academic levels across racial and socioeconomic boundaries before the college level?

Charles: The differences in academic preparation are all about differences in class status. Either we have to do something to alleviate social class disparities or we have to decide that even if we don’t alleviate those disparities we’re going to make sure that there are educational opportunities for the bottom 80 percent that provide them with the opportunity to be competitive. In my own city we’ve started to do more with Pre-K, for example. You really have to go back as far as you can. If you can be doing things for kids, not only from Pre-K on, but from age zero to two, to expose them to more vocabulary, to read to them more often, to get them out into the world, to eat appropriately and healthily, all of those things are important. Living wages that mean that parents don’t have to work two jobs in order to provide for their kids so they can spend time parenting their kids. We need to figure out ways for those who have less to have the opportunity to do the same kinds of things that wealthier kids have.

CJLPP: In 2015, you co-wrote an article about the misconceptions surrounding the difficulties of multi-racial identities, arguing that these mixed identities can actually benefit from some aspects of white privilege. Similarly, how does attending college in a generally higher-income, white environment like Pomona College impact lower-income students of color? Are they more likely to reap the benefits of access to resources at these schools or feel further marginalized within the community?

Charles: I think it varies. Yes, they have the opportunity to take advantage of these things. Some kids are better prepared to take advantage of them than others. If you think about kids who were able to take advantage of programs that got them into elite prep schools for high school, in some ways they could be better prepared because they’ve already spent four years in a predominantly white environment learning how to take advantage of all of the resources and amenities that those schools provide. They’ve already begun creating social networks that include people who are better resourced than they are and have better networks than they do. On the other hand, you also hear about kids who find that extremely isolating because they can’t relate to the affluence that surrounds them and there is an element of embarrassment or shame, but also just a alienation from it. These kids could end up in an elite prep school for high school but end up creating their own community because they feel uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, a lot of that discomfort comes from a level of privilege and entitlement that isn’t necessarily nefarious, right? You just think everybody is like you because you grew up around people who were like you and everybody at school is like you, so you talk about things and have experiences that to you are just part of life, but at the same time you’ve got this small population of kids from disadvantaged backgrounds who can’t even imagine those experiences. These students hear you complaining about the smallest things and think that you should feel lucky that you’re in the situation that you’re in and that you have the opportunities that you have. I think it’s a mixed bag and I think that it depends on a collection of characteristics, some of them actually quite personal, in terms of self-esteem and self-efficacy that will make the difference. It’s also important for the campus to have resources available to the students, not just institutional resources, like some center you can go to for help or sense of community, but individuals, that they can go to when they are in need of something or when they’re just having a hard time figuring how to fit in. It’s important for institutions to have both structures and individuals in place that provide support, safe havens, and some sort of environment where those students are encouraged to step out of their comfort zone a little bit and make the connections that are one of the benefits of going to an elite institution.

CJLPP: How has teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, a highly esteemed university with an almost majority (an estimated 44.7%) white student population affected your understanding of racial dynamics in institutions of higher education?

Charles:  I wouldn’t say that it has affected my understanding as much as it has reinforced my understanding. We are a good institution, we want to be on the right side of the right things and that we work really hard at it. In my time—I’ve been there 20 years now—I’ve seen the administration, the faculty, all of it really, be more careful about making sure that they’re doing the best that they can do. Sometimes that means responses can be slow, but they’re also more thoughtful. We’re not perfect, but I think for the most part higher education is a microcosm of a certain part of American society. All of the assumptions that I had about elite higher education have largely been borne out of this. I will say, that when I came out of grad school I really had no interest in being at an elite institution, much less at an Ivy League institution because I thought that the students who needed me most wouldn’t be at those institutions, but in fact they are. They’re in smaller numbers, but the truth of the matter is that even affluent students of color struggle in many of the same ways as lower-income people of color. An affluent black man is no less likely to be stopped by the police and an affluent black woman is no less likely to be followed around in a department store. Often the assumption is that all of the students of color who are there are lower income, are from families whose parents didn’t go to college, and so t most of them have some kind of struggle and all of them seem to benefit from having people like me in front of the classroom.

CJLPP: Thank you so much for your time and expertise.

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