Upward mobility

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(HOST) Commentator Madeleine Kunin is concerned that the rising cost of education and tax advantages that favor the wealthy is making upward mobility a much steeper climb for many Americans.

(KUNIN) I believe in the American dream. In many ways, my life is a realization of it, having come to the United States as a child with my older brother and single mother. We quickly learned English and, later, had access to a college education through scholar- ships, hard work and, for my brother, the GI bill.

Today, that dream is being eroded for many Americans, those who are hoping to enter the mainstream as immigrants, or those who dream of making it up the economic ladder from poverty to the middle class. It has become obvious that the gap between rich and poor has been growing, but what has not been clear is that there is a new class of Americans – the super rich. A series in The New York Times documents the trend.

Those earning more than ten million a year pay a lower share of their income on taxes than those earning $100,000 to $200,000. If the Bush tax cuts are made permanent, the poor will be signif- icantly more heavily taxed than the rich, and the super rich will be taxed the least. Upward mobilility is a tougher climb than it used to be when people simply perservered and followed the rules.

My father-in-law, owned a kosher butcher shop in Brooklyn. He did not allow any of his four sons to work with him. He wanted them to get an education, and they did: two doctors, one lawyer and an art appraiser.

Yes, it’s still possible for first-time college students to get an education. But it’s harder. New rules on student financial aid for lower income students are requiring many parents to pay more, some as much as $6,000. For many, that can make the difference, whether a person goes to college or not, or whether they drop out. If the family decides college is not affordable, there is a good chance that that young person will spend the rest of her life in a dead-end minimum-wage job.

Access to education and the tax structure are the two greatest factors in enabling people to move from poverty to security and beyond. There is something fundamentally wrong in America when that wooden ladder is pulled out from under the people who need it most and a gilded ladder is given to those who need it least.

The American dream cannot be allowed to fade. It has drawn millions of immigrants to this country, who, in turn, enriched their new homeland. It is not only what makes this country great; it makes it a democracy.

This is Madeleine May Kunin.

Madeleine May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.

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