The American Dream – 3/20/15

We pride ourselves in the idea that the United States of America is the land of opportunity.  Our most admired cultural stories are stories of rags to riches, of individuals who succeed in America despite starting with nothing, or less than nothing, and making their lives a success based on their own abilities and hard work. It is what we call “The American Dream” and we call America, the land or opportunity.

Two recent events in my life have caused me to realize the reaching the American Dream in the land or opportunity is not what it used to be. I was at the recent groundbreaking of the Foster Square project and saw the beginning of constructon of the first phase which will be sixty six affordable housing units. Many of us all worked hard to bring these units to reality despite numerous roadblocks, but we partnered and we looked outside the box and we made it happen.  All great things. But what I also thought about was the fact that in order to give people of more modest income an “opportunity” to live in Foster City and enjoy its benefits that we had to help, financially and otherwise, to make that happen.

I also read an article in the March 16 issue of New Yorker Magazine that deals with the growing gap between the rich and the poor in our Country.  No, I am not going to make arguments about the one-percent, I am only saying that there is no denying that wealth is more concentrated in a smaller number of people in America than anywhere else and at any other point in our history.

Now I am a capitalist at heart and I do not believe that we need to redistribute wealth, but what I do believe is that we need to reopen opportunity to all. Opportunity is not a hand out, it is simply a chance given to the individual to use her or his talents and succeed based on those talents and the individual’s hard work. One only need look as far as the cost of college these days as evidence that opportunity is less open to people of more modest means than it was in the past.  My parents went to public college for free. I went to public undergraduate school for almost free and law school for free. My son went to the same public university for a tuition that totalled significantly more than what it cost for both my wife and I to go to college, even correcting for inflation.  If we did not have the means to pay for our son’s college, it is likely he would have been denied that opportunity. When you extrapolate the lost opportunity to attend college to the fact that the job market then gets smaller and the pay for those jobs lower, you can see what the lost opportunity really costs.

Now as a member of a city council for a small city there is little I can do to open up significant opportunity on any sort of meaningful scale, but simply because I cannot fix the problem does not mean that I should, that we as a Council should not help those we can. I believe, in fact, that we have an obligation to do so.

To me it is the concept that comes from the old saying “Give a man a  fish and feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.” I do not believe in the redistribution of wealth nor in giving handouts, but I do believe in creating opportunities for people to help themselves, opportunities to allow the individual to reach the American Dream.

So, at the small city level, how do we do that? Well, my fellow residents, this is the part that many of your are going to hate – affordable housing. Yes, I get that housing has impacts, I have written extensively on how I hate sitting in traffic, how I have worked to increase our school class space and how I have been working for years on water conservation, energy conservation and the like. So I am not suggesting that we start building affordable housing willy-nilly everywhere we can, but I am suggesting that we look at what may come before us in the coming years and readjust our focus to balance between impacts and the chance to create opportunity.

Other than those Native Americans, all the rest of us descend from someone born elsewhere.  Many of us are here because our ancestors saw the opportunity of America. If we can open up more such opportunities to future generations, don’t we have an obligation to do so? Don’t we have an obligation to make our great schools, great parks, safe streets, family culture available to people who are working hard to get ahead but simply cannot afford the million plus dollar homes that our market rates demand? I think we do and I think that most of you think that if we can find a way to open up such opportunities without significantly impacting ourselves, that you would do it too.

I have some ideas on how this can be done, on how we can start now and how we can build in the future. Unfortunately this small column limits the amount I can discuss these issues, so I will do that on my blog The good news about that is that you can make comments and send questions in ways that are not possible with a newspaper article.

Come be part of this discussion. Bring your ideas, bring your criticism, but, as I have been saying a lot this year, get involved. Here is another way to do just that.

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