by Clarence Page

Is the United States in decline? With protesters in the streets, Washington in gridlock and our economy on life support, it's easy to understand why the question is being asked a lot these days. But, as an old saying goes, where you stand depends on where you sit.

Yes, say more than two-thirds of American voters in a recent poll by The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, and Pulse Opinion Research, an independent polling firm. A clear majority of 57 percent also said they think the next generation will be worse off than this one.

Yet a closer look reveals that levels of pessimism varied sharply by race and political party. Republicans were more pessimistic than Democrats, and blacks were much sunnier than whites.

An overwhelming 90 percent of Republicans said they thought the U.S. is declining, compared to fewer than half (47 percent) of Democratic respondents agreed. And two-thirds of Republicans but only 45 percent of Democrats feared today's kids will be worse off than their parents.

"Oddly enough," the Hill reported in its news pages, "African Americans -- who were hammered much harder by the recession than whites -- are more optimistic about the direction of the country."

Actually it is not that "odd" when you consider how much better, despite the current economic woes, the long-range future of African Americans looks than it used to.

Ironically, in the post-1960s, era as the U.S. was losing its manufacturing base to overseas workers, walls of discrimination against nonwhites were breaking down. For those who prepared themselves through education and job training, the black middle class rapidly grew.

I think that helps to explain why only 30 percent of black respondents in The Hill's poll said the United States is on the slip-and-slide, versus 74 percent of whites. Similarly, fewer than a third of black voters (31 percent) think today's youths will suffer greater hardships than their parents, vs. almost two-thirds (60 percent) of white respondents.

The reasons why are all around us, especially for baby boomers like me who grew up in factory towns that don't manufacture much anymore. A major topic I encountered at my recent high school reunion, now that we're old enough to view almost everything worth remembering as "the good ol' days," was the disappearance of opportunities we used to know in the mid-1960s.

How much easier it was for the kids of our generation, a mix of races and ethnicities, to get a summer job at the local steel mill, as I did. Jobs like that, if we played our cards right, would pay our room, board and tuition at a state university so we'd never have to look at a slag pit or an open-hearth furnace for the rest of our lives.

We don't have to look at those factories and assembly plants now because they're almost all gone -- to overseas workers. Meanwhile, the gap between the upper and lower income brackets has widened sharply and steadily since the mid-1970s, along with the difficulty faced by youngsters who want to bridge the gap.

The news is not quite as stark as the "1 percent versus 99 percent" rhetoric of the Occupy Wall Street movement puts it, Terry J. Fitzgerald, a vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, recently wrote on the bank's website. Middle-class incomes have gone up over the past 30 years, too, although at a slower rate. But farther down the income scale, the news gets increasingly bleak.

The real problem, then, is not the income gap, but the opportunity gap. Many of my classmates were, like me, the first in our families to go to college. In our conversations about the good old days, someone inevitably comes back to the real problem: "Education is the key. We've got to do something about the schools."

Indeed, a number of studies find that the European nations where many of my classmates ancestors came from, have been able to hold onto upward mobility better than we Americans have, simply by investing in education.

We won't close the opportunity gap by demonizing either government or the private sector, but by persuading both to work together. Otherwise, we won't have to ask whether America is in decline. We will know it is.


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United States in Decline -- If We Allow It | Politics

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