The decline in equality of opportunity occupies progressives and conservatives alike.
The creed of the United States was summarized in the 19th century in “McGuffey’s Reader,” a school textbook written by Rev. William Holmes McGuffey: “The road to wealth, to honor, to usefulness and happiness is open to all, and all who will may enter upon it with the almost certain prospect of success.”
The idea of égalité stemming from the French Revolution never interested the Americans, but equality of opportunity is written in the genes of this country. Now, with upward social mobility stalled and an increase in the gap between the richest and a shrinking middle class, the fundamental idea is being questioned. Episodes like the disturbances in Baltimore two weeks ago expose the reality of two disconnected countries: one prosperous and competitive, with a high level of education, the other, trapped in a cycle of poverty, school dropouts and broken homes.
After a decade of recession and wars, it is time for introspection in the United States. Are we one country, they ask on the left and right. Can we maintain social cohesion when one half turns its back on the other? Until a little while ago, the solution for the left was redistribution; the right insisted on individual responsibility.
The new debate crosses divisions: Democrats and Republicans alike fly the flag of the fight against poverty, which is based on the role of the school and family, on neighborhood development, on the damage that the judicial and police systems inflict on minorities and the poor. How do we break the cycle?
This is what Barack Obama will discuss today at Georgetown University with sociologist Robert Putnam, author of “Our Kids,” one of the books of the year in Washington political circles, and Arthur Brooks, president of the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute. And this will also be the debate in the upcoming presidential election campaign for 2016. McGuffey’s creed returns as a plan for the future.