Paper Tigers Take Bite Out of American Dream

Paper Tigers Take Bite Out of American Dream
Three major newspapers attack traditional economic views and show support for the welfare state.

By Dan Gainor
May 16, 2005

     Readers of three of the most popular newspapers in the U.S. have been deluged with one-sided versions of life in these United States. In four days, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and New York Times all had large articles detailing the disparities between rich and poor. In more than 16,000 words, the three papers painted a picture of what the Post called an unraveling safety net that threatens the New Deal vision of cradle-to-grave security.

     What the Post didnt mention was that the real concept of cradle-to-grave security is a holdover from the Soviet Union and communism. Yet reporter Dale Russakoff editorialized that such a concept underwritten by the federal government was a triumph for America.

     The Post was quick to plant the blame for abandoning the safety net firmly on President George Bush. That vision is being supplanted by one President Bush calls the Ownership Society, in which the burdens of economic security -- and, the president hopes, the rewards -- shift back to individuals, Russakoff wrote. Russakoff was willing to blame Bushs plans for their burdens, but wasnt willing to give any credit for the rewards. The burden he was referring to was the idea of personal responsibility.

     The Journal discussed new studies that suggest class mobility may be less fluid than previously believed. Their article, As Rich-Poor Gap Widens in the U.S., Class Mobility Stalls appeared May 13, 2005, as the beginning of an occasional series. That article was the first of many. On May 15, both the Post and Times led their front pages with articles that attacked the American Dream in favor of what Business Week called the Safety Net nation. The Post argued how much better life is for seniors than it will ever be for their children or grandchildren. And the Times started off a three-week series of articles with a 4,400-word piece entitled Class in America: Shadowy Lines That Still Divide.

     According to the Times, A team of reporters spent more than a year exploring ways that class -- defined as a combination of income, education, wealth and occupation influences destiny in a society that likes to think of itself as a land of unbounded opportunity.

     The premise of the Times stories and the Wall Street Journal piece was that some recent studies indicate class is more of a fixture in American culture than in other nations. However, The Wall Street Journal piece undermined its own contention, as well as the premise for the entire Times series, several times. The paucity of data makes it hard to say how mobility changed for much of the 20th century, stated the May 15, 2005, article by David Wessel. This is a complete opposite of the articles previous claim that over the last ten years, better data and more number-crunching have led economists and sociologists to a new consensus: The escalators of mobility move much more slowly. A substantial body of research finds that at least 45% of parents advantage in income is passed along to their children, and perhaps as much as 60%.

     The Journal didnt stop the contradictions there:

    The article pointed out the long-term advantages of a strong and growing economy and their impact on class mobility. Still, the escalators of social mobility continue to move. Nearly a third of the freshmen at four-year colleges last fall said their parents hadnt gone beyond high school. And thanks to a growing economy that lifts everyones living standards, the typical American is living with more than his or her parents did. Hardly a situation of limited class movement.
    Wessel explained that he was relying on data that ignored the immigrant experience. One drawback of the surveys is that they dont capture the experiences of recent immigrants or their children, many of whom have seen extraordinary upward mobility. The University of California at Berkeley, for instance, says 52% of last years undergraduate had two parents who werent born in the U.S., and thats not counting the relatively few students whose families live abroad. No small point given the millions of legal and illegal immigrants that arrive each year.
    The article cited American University economist Tom Hertz who claimed that 17% of whites born to the bottom 10% of families ranked by income remained there as adults, but 42% of blacks did. Of course, Wessel could have mentioned that 83 percent of whites born in the bottom 10 percent moved up, just as 58 percent of blacks did. Far from indicating limited mobility, those statistics prove just the opposite.

     The Post story took a strong pro-government approach to financial matters, arguing that the government used to be, and should be, responsible for individuals financial well-being. Reporter Russakoff contrasted secure Democrats, protected by their union, their party and their government, with todays Republicans, who feel largely on their own in a world full of risks and responsibilities, and no guarantees. What he failed to explain was that Republicans who support Bush's ownership society do so because they believe they are responsible for their own lives. They would prefer to be on their own rather than to have the government dictating how their money is spent.

     Like the Journal, the Post emphasized the lack of class mobility, but went even further and described a family with decreasing prospects for the future. The grandchildren, all three generations agree, have it worse than their parents or grandparents most dramatically in their prospects for retirement, when all gains and losses come home to roost. While the article detailed the risks of investing, it never explained the upside, including ownership of retirement accounts and the ability to pass along earned wealth to heirs.

     For all of its advocacy of government solutions, the Post inadvertently promoted traditional financial values. Russakoff mentioned that his central character, Junior Paugh, was a thrifty man. Paugh, who was held up as the picture of financial security because of secure pension plans, also placed a high value on individual savings. He invested partly in government bonds, which are a low-risk option available to the more than 3.4 million people currently benefiting from the Thrift Savings Plan, a retirement plan for federal employees. Bush's plan for personal accounts is modeled on the Thrift Savings Plan.

     Another one of the retirees Russakoff interviewed said he saw a simple problem with the retirement plans of his 50-something-aged children: They spend their money before they make it, said 82-year-old Ed Dorsey.

     The Post article emphasized the risk of the stock market, pointing out one interviewee could end up as secure as her grandfather in old age but only if the stock market cooperates. Although Paugh also warned that what goes up can come down, not everyone took that attitude. Kay Cody, one member of the family interviewed by Russakoff, shattered the conventional wisdom of media reports. Cody explained how she educated herself about her 401(k) and learned to manage her savings -- showing that Americans can and do take responsibility for their own futures. TheBusiness & Media Institute has found in ongoing analysis of Social Security coverage that reporters portray Americans as ignorant about investing.

     Russakoff said 56-year-old Kay Cody is not likely to face benefit reductions because of Social Security reform proposals exempting those older than 55. However, the Social Security Administration has projected that the system won't pay out full benefits after 2041. Cody said she's concerned about her children and grandchildren's benefits. Yet, Russakoff's article attacked Bush's ideas for Social Security reform, which are designed to bridge this future gap in the system's finances.

     While each of the articles sought a summary conclusion, the Journals was the most overt. Wessel ended his article with a mention that Americans continue to cherish their self-image as a unique land where past and parentage puts no limits on opportunity, as they have for centuries. What Wessel ignored was that much of his own article supported that position, despite his best efforts.

     For more on the Business & Media Institute analysis of Social Security media coverage, click here:

     Also visit for their analysis.

Assistant Editor Amy Menefee and researcher Charles Simpson contributed to this article.