Panel looks at American Dream, inequality

Young people pack Clark College venue for discussion of relevant issues, questions

By Troy Brynelson, Columbian staff writer

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Shamele Battan had a lot of questions about the country’s future.

With a national election about a month away and almost daily news of social uproar around the country, the 23-year-old of Fijian descent said social and economic issues were close to his heart.

But, he said, they were close to a lot of young hearts.

“Being a millennial, a lot of these issues today really hit home, whether it’s social inequality or economic inequality,” he said. “I mean, with a lot of the injustices in the U.S., I would guess a lot of college-aged students would be interested.”

Battan, a recent Seattle Pacific University graduate, was one of the many young people who packed Foster Auditorium at Clark College for its panel “Is the American Dream at Risk?” Thursday night.

The talk lasted just over an hour with four Clark College faculty members talking about the past and present of race, sex and class in the United States.

Economics instructor Patricia Atkinson and professors Michael Ceriello, Kushlani de Soyza and Dr. Don Ludwig spoke to each other to start, then fielded questions from students toward the panel’s end.

“Inequality is not just an economic issue, it is absolutely a social issue,” said Ludwig, a sociology professor, “in that people that are in the lower classes have less and less social capital that really also contribute to their inability to the same resources.”

The book “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis” scaffolded much of the conversation. A New York Times best-seller, the book takes a look at upward mobility, or the lack thereof, in the United States.

In the book, Robert Putnam contends that the country’s wealthy and poor are diverging. He surmises that wealthy children, families and schools have increasing opportunities, while the poorer children, families and school’s face fewer opportunities — effectively pouring concrete on their socioeconomic statuses.

The book is required in some classes at the college, Atkinson said.

The concepts sprawl across social and economic issues, and panelists pointed out numerous symptoms. Some pointed to inequities in taxes, such as the way capital — real estate, stocks, etc. — is taxed less than wages and thus benefits the rich people who can acquire them.

Ceriello, a political science professor, portrayed the dual rises of Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders as examples. Sanders, they said, was fueled by young adults whose expensive educations and low-paying jobs mired them in debt. Trump supporters similarly felt pinched by fewer manufacturing jobs, they said.

“Coal mines are closing, manufacturing plants are closing — and by the way, if you’re white, there are people blaming all of this on the immigrants and people of other religions, different skin colors, everything else,” he said. “It’s really easy to find that as a scapecoat.”

The book’s focus on education and family led some panelists to talk about funding for Planned Parenthood and how some groups take on greater burdens early in life with unintended pregnancies.

However, Ceriello and de Soyza, a professor of women’s studies, said the book took a narrow, heteronormative stance on family life.

“Socioeconomic mobility is getting harder for most Americans, that’s true,” de Soyza said. “But as folks who were once in the middle class by themselves get squeezed, blame is getting laid on those who were already at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder — the one’s who have been there all along.”

During the question-and-answer portion, audience members asked what could be done. Some asked about overturning Citizens United, a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that has allowed corporations to donate to campaigns and arguably giving more influence over elections to the wealthy. Many answers were to tell students to get involved and try to change things themselves.

Battan asked whether it would help if we focused on reducing the national debt.

“I think it’s going to be a political solution, right?” de Soyza said. “Until people start voting for politicians who will make decisions and enact economic policies that help all of us, ain’t nothing going to change. We need to get more Americans to stop voting against their own best interest. That has to happen.”

One student, a 16-year-old, said afterward that he disliked the discussion because he felt the panel lacked conservative voices.