Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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THE AMERICAN DREAM Part 2: Post Baby Boom Achievement in the South

Stories abound about members of my Dad’s generation who rose up economically through education. As I recounted in “Part 1: The Cardboard in the Shoes Kid”, Dad rose far above the economic level of his upbringing and left his many siblings and their families behind through his academic achievement. Using a combination of a partial athletic scholarship and the GI Bill (Dad fought in Korea), his story personified the American Dream. In his 40’s he and two partners bought the company that he ran.

The economic policy followed by the federal government in the 1980’s brought a historically high dollar value to international trade. This decimated the American optical manufacturing industry in which my Dad had worked his entire career. Where once there had been more than 100 manufacturers of spectacle frames, Martin-Copeland was one of just 3 remaining businesses when it fell. Despite that, Mom and Dad saved enough to weather this little known episode of American economic history. Forced to give up his company, Dad nonetheless enjoyed a comfortable retirement that began at age 57.

From what I can see in my daily interactions with my Dad’s generational peers in the Midwest (I am an eye surgeon; my daily fare includes caring for children of the Depression) my father’s life story is far from unique. There is a clear division in his generation when it comes to the accumulation of wealth over a lifetime: the greater the academic achievement, the greater the wealth. Countless examples of this can be found in the most casual reading about (mostly) men born just a bit too young to have fought in WWII. Another example from the Northeast is Joe Corcoran whose obituary I read in the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Corcoran’s father was a housepainter, his mother a homemaker. A graduate of Boston College he went on to amass a fortune building affordable housing in the greater Boston area.

For the generation of Americans born after 1930, academic achievement was the dominant factor in determining next generation wealth.

What can be said of that generation’s children? Again, let me begin with a personal observation (there does not appear to be a study similar to the Georgetown study that looks at my era). Like my Dad my siblings and I went to public schools. As the children of two college graduates it should come as no surprise that all four of us went on to graduate from college. When the three older among us matriculated our parents were just beginning to reap the financial benefits of my father’s economic rise. They owned one house (with a mortgage), belonged to a nice golf club, and had two cars. College expenses were quite different than today. In 1978 Harvard cost approximately $14,000 for tuition, room, and board. I attended Williams College, a small liberal arts college founded in 1793, for the grand total of $7,200 my freshman year.

There was wealth at Williams, to be sure. Some of the grandest names in American history were represented in the student body when I was there, as well as the children of quiet, though substantial, wealth. If memory serves the ratio was 50/50 prep/public school. Notably, some of the students with the greater financial needs at Williams had attended some of the most expensive prep schools; both Williams and the east coast prep circuit were early in on scholarship aid, however shallow the effort may have been.

You could describe me as second generation academic achiever, but many of my friends and acquaintances were, like my Dad, the first in their families to go to college. Still others were more like me, the children of the first generation of college grads. Thinking about the group of classmates who did not come from wealth, who would have no family money to fall back on should they suffer an economic setback, each and every one of them rapidly climbed the economic ladder to a height that exceeded the peak of their parents’ economic achievement. As far as my parents offspring, all four of the children in my family have equalled or exceeded the economic outcome our parents enjoyed at the peak of my father’s success.

One can say that my story thus far suffers from a strong northeastern bias. Both my Dad and Mr. Corcoran were the sons of Irish immigrant families. While several of my very successful friends at Williams are Black, the Williams College student body of the 70’s and 80’s was largely White. This is also a legitimate criticism of a narrative “verbal history” approach to the question at hand.

Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina has been much in the news of late for his efforts to spearhead police reforms around the issue of race. My daughter and her husband live in South Carolina so I confess to spending perhaps a bit more time reading about its state politics than might be normal for a citizen of Ohio who grew up in Rhode Island. Senator Scott is 54 years old, 6 years younger than I am. He was raised with two brothers by a single Mom who worked double shifts as a nurse’s aid to support him and his brothers (whose accomplishments simply must be noted: the older brother is a Sergeant Major in the Army, the younger a Colonel in the Air Force). Like my Dad he began his college experience on a partial football scholarship.

After graduating from Charleston Southern University Mr. Scott became a successful insurance entrepreneur. He was interviewed in the WSJ shortly after introducing a Senate bill meant to establish national standards for policing, especially with regard to the use of force by police officers. In that interview he flatly stated: “I am living my Mother’s American Dream.” He was quoted as saying that “advancement comes through education.”

I do not know Senator Scott, but meeting him would be an honor and a privilege. If I were fortunate enough to do so I would ask him if his experience, and that of his peers, contradicts the conclusion of the Georgetown study that, on balance, the existence of very modest family wealth is more important than academic achievement as a determining factor for a generation to rise above the economic level experienced by their parents. My guess is that Senator Scott would first point out the very real, very substantial barriers that children of color face in addition to economic status that must be addressed in any evaluation of the original question.

However, from what I have read and what Senator Scott has said, I believe that he is no more an outlier than I was, or for that matter my father or Mr. Corcoran. Even if we accept as true the conclusion of the Georgetown Study that family wealth is a stronger predictor of economic outcomes in the years beginning in 2002, as recently as 1990 when Senator Scott was building his business, academic achievement was still the significant driver.

For at least the younger members of Gen X, it appears that academic achievement was still the path to the American Dream.

Next: If the paradigm did flip, when did it happen and why?

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