What many Indian Americans fail to realize is that the “American Dream” did not pop out of thin air
By Peter Jacob
Many Indians migrated to America throughout the latter half of the 20th century into the 21st century witnessing a nation in which on a single income; one can purchase a home, a new car every few years, put all your children through college, and take the family on vacation few times a year. A nation that put a man on the moon. A nation in which you can start your own business, shake the shackles of caste and class, have time for leisure on the weekends, and retire after a lifetime of hard work with dignity with Social Security and a pension.
What many Indian Americans fail to realize is that the ‘American Dream’ did not pop out of thin air. Like many other recent immigrants in more recent decades, we are the beneficiaries of the fruits of labor of those who fought to ensure that all people in this nation, not just the wealthy few, can live that American Dream. A living wage, the ability to compete in a fair economic system, the weekends off, paid time off, that not only whites but all people of color have equal social-economic-political access under the law, all these benefits were fought for by regular people. We have freedom today because many black women and men protested, took a beating from average citizens and police alike, and even got killed fighting for those freedoms. We have Social Security, a 40-hour work week and overtime pay, unemployment insurance, values of protecting our communities and ensuring a livable wage, thanks to movements organized by working-class people and a government that, once upon a time, put people over special big business interests. Whether it be the Indian American who makes $30k or $3 million a year, we all stand on the shoulders of those who made great sacrifices before our arrival.
Today, much of what was fought for is being lost. Politicians talk about gutting or cutting popular programs that prevent poverty such as Social Security and Medicare when 21% of married Social Security recipients and 43% of single recipients aged 65+ depend on Social Security for 90% or more of their income. We had tuition-free public colleges and universities throughout most of this nation’s history which many new Indian arrivals in the 60s and 70s made good use of at such prestigious schools as University of California and the City College of New York, they are virtually non-existent now. Many of the movements that achieved these social benefits during the New Deal era established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt through the Great Society during the era of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson have been forgotten. And when we forget history, we doom ourselves to repeat it. Such is the case when we began to deregulate our economy the late 1970s and into the 1980s (as was done in the 1920s which lead to the Great Depression), culminating in 2008 with the Great Recession.
The fact of the matter, in 21st century America almost 80% of Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck, nearly 2/3 cannot afford a $500 emergency, medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy (U.S. is the only developed nation to have this problem), people work longer hours while their wages have remained stagnant, students graduate with insurmountable debt and continue to accumulate such debt until the day they die – a nation of economic slaves. Inequality in America has increased to a level unseen except immediately before the Great Depression2. We find America in endless war all throughout the world. On top of all this, we face the existential threat of a warming planet that can make much of life unsustainable. The United Nations warns that we have very limited time on the matter of human induced global warming and can face climate catastrophe before 2040. An Oxford University author of the report said, “It’s telling us we need to reverse emissions trends and turn the world economy on a dime.”
Indians and Indian Americans who migrated to the U.S. may believe none of this impacts us. It is true that Indians in America on average attain higher levels of education and have higher levels of median household income. Yet, we are ignorant of, or even worse, forget, that we are the beneficiaries from the fruits of labor of those who came before for us, who have fought against racism and for social-economic-political freedoms. And that moment of some semblance of social tranquility and economic euphoria is itself on rapid decline. No one is immune to the crisis that is looming. My parents’ generation, makes the last generation to truly benefit from the fruits of the American Dream. However, this and the next generation will not have the same privileges as they navigate the current social-economic-political environment. I have Indian friends who have been laid-off from their jobs with mortgages or rent to pay, children to raise, bills to pay, and some of whom manage with unemployment insurance. While a candidate for U.S. Congress, I’ve met fellow Indian Americans apprehensive about how they will pay for their children’s college, spoken with seniors struggling to pay for rent, medications, and medical bills as the cost of living is on the rise. I’ve spoken with small business owners who struggle to retain employees as they cannot compete with the big corporations that provide health insurance and 401K plans.
There is still hope, but we must mobilize and act quickly. It begins with understanding this history of America and understanding basic economics, which enables an awakening of social-consciousness that can bring positive change for generations to come. A functional economy works on a single principle: when people have money in their pocket, they spend that money back into the economy. The economy does not function when the millionaires and billionaires are given ridiculous tax cuts and hoard their money in overseas bank accounts as a way of dodging their social responsibility to pay a fair share in taxes. We cannot have a consumer-based economy, if consumers cannot afford to consume. And there is no Planet B to escape to if we continue on this path of eco-genocide as a result of our addiction to fossil fuels.
And what direction shall we as a nation be heading you may be wondering now. I’d like to point back to an era that inspired Indians to leave the comfort of their families, homes, native-tongue for the land of opportunity. In his final State of the Union Address in 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced his vision for a “Second Bill of Rights” which spoke to economic rights. Unfortunately, President FDR passed away shortly after. However, just 21 years later, a companion of President FDR penned a document titled, “New Freedom Budget for All Americans” along with his friend, Martin Luther King, Jr. Both documents called for a right to healthcare, education, a good paying job, housing, protection from unfair competition and economic fears. Unfortunately, MLK Jr. was assassinated shortly and America involved itself deeply in a war with Vietnam that sucked resources from expanding the Great Society programs of the 1960s.
Fortunately, for us at this great moment in history, America has two candidates for president who lay out a vision for, not just a better United States, but our world at large. These two candidates are Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. They both fight to ensure healthcare as a right through a Medicare For All single payer system. They support curbing fossil fuels and a jobs programs to put people to work building clean green modern energy infrastructure. They both believe in returning to what even President Abraham Lincoln continued to build in our nation: tuition-free and debt-free higher education. They serve to bring a new era of global peace by not supporting policies to destabilize other sovereign nations. They refuse donations from the elitist class and their corporations. They are often maligned by major news media and their colleagues for serving the people over their moneyed-interests. I encourage you to check out and support both Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard’s efforts as elected officials and candidates for the President of the most influential nation in the world.
The stakes are high and the time is limited to settle for anything less than, brave and bold progressive policies.
Peter Jacob is a Licensed Social Worker, Former-Candidate for U.S. House in New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District and Executive Board Member for Our Revolution New Jersey. He is an activist for single-payer healthcare having seen these challenges first hand in our own NJ communities.