From the junkyard; thoughts on movin’ on up

My sister Alyssa and I illustrate a heavy 1985 snow at Brown and Sons Salvage in McDavitt Township (Zim), MN.

The “American Dream” is predicated on a simple concept. Unlike a lot of the 19th century European powers, America was to be a place where one could climb the ladder of social class based on merit. If you worked hard enough and smart enough, you’d be set.

The reality of this dream has always been a challenge. Not everyone can be rich. Not everyone moves up the ladder, sometimes for reasons of their own making, sometimes for disease, or family responsibilities, or the kind of bad luck common to poverty. Still, very few at the top move down the ladder. The system – like all systems – makes it easier to keep what you have. It’s hardest to keep what you just got — which is why the “new” middle class of postwar America took it on the chin in the last recession.

Today the New York Times has this story: “In Climbing Income Ladder, Location Matters.” It shows the likelihood of a child born in the bottom 20 percent of income advancing to the top 20 percent based on location. You’ll want to check it out for the interesting interactive graphic showing the many regions of the country.

In the place where I grew up there is currently a 10 percent chance of a child doing this. And that’s actually a better chance than kids get in a lot of urban, Rust Belt and Southern locations. There are downright lofty chances — more than 30 percent — for kids born now in western North Dakota, but that’s predicted on the idea that they’ll work in the oil fields — a vocation few list as their childhood dream.

This discussion is personal for me because …

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in the 1980s I grew up in a household that was, legally speaking, in poverty. My dad made a four-digit income and we lived in a trailer house on a salvage yard owned by my grandfather. The caveat there, of course, is that my grandfather was a businessman and we didn’t have to pay for the trailer house. This was an advantage, if you want to call it that.

It would have been very easy for me not to go to college. I attended an inexpensive state school that nevertheless cost more than my parents made at the time. As it was, I paid my own way through college working nearly full time. I got a good job after graduating and was able to pay off my student loans rather quickly.

Today I live a solidly middle class life, with a family and a comfortable home in the woods of northern Minnesota. I’m a college teacher with the time, interest and luxury to write books, blogs and radio shows without having to worry about feeding my family in doing so. I don’t think I’ve moved from the bottom 20 percent to the top, perhaps only the second to the top. But I could get there, certainly by Iron Range standards, and my kids will certainly have the ability to attend college and park themselves in a good career.

I think about the kids I knew growing up — my friends, but also just the other kids in the township. Some are doing OK for themselves. A few have done well. I can think of some that make more money than me. But a lot of the poorest kids — the kids from my bus: Man, I just don’t know what happened to those kids. If I know anything about them, it’s from the cop report in the newspaper.

It’s hard out there.

(h/t Bob Collins, NewsCut)


  1. Yes, so many things are just accidents, so to speak, depending on where we live, or where we were born. My mom talked about her grandfather, who did well in Milwaukee because he came from the old country with the ability to speak German, English, and Polish. Its not like his mother would have dreamed that he would get a good job in the ward because of that.

  2. So true, and beautifully said. My parents were immigrants from Finland in the early 1950s. My father worked as a farmhand, returned to Finland, married my mother – they were both eighteen – and returned to work changing tires at a Montgomery Wards while my mother worked in a hat factory. Of course, one thing led to another and he found work in construction, eventually owning his own roofing company. A few strokes of good luck later and he was also, solidly middle class. My brother runs the roofing company today and I’m a writer with a graduate degree and a new novel. My children are college grads and in professional schools. We thank “Pappa” for his hard work and initiative. Sadly, the American Dream is far beyond the reach of many today. Thanks for the great blog post!

  3. You imply Aaron, as though life was meant to be easy. Fortunately, the vast majority of us were supported throughout our formative, dependent years by our parents and it was.

    Unfortunately, somewhere along the way you transitioned to believing the good things your parents did for you should be guaranteed for all, to thinking individual decisions and subsequent consequences should be minimized, to thinking the “state” is better positioned to handle personal choices that in reality, can only be made by oneself. Now look at the mess that thinking has created.

    Us more blessed ones know differently, and understand there are no guarantees in life and no substitute for free will.

    Try as you might to impose your godless standards of stealing from one class to give to a class you deem more worthy, natural law and the 10 commandments will forever prevent you. Thank God…

  4. As usual, Bob, you assume things about me and my character that are simply not true. The rest is just mean and hateful. I have no response to such things, other than to point this out to you.

  5. Ranger47 always seems to be responding to the same thing, and it’s not what’s on the page in front of him.

  6. Mean and hateful?? Truth, factual…and maybe judgmental but not mean and certainly not hateful. What words expressed hate. Wow..It’s hard to believe a Cherry upbringing was that different from one in Bovey…but I could be wrong.

  7. Calling someone “godless” is kind of mean, especially when you’re basing that epithet on an economic theory that the person hasn’t even talked about.

    I’ve always found it weird how some people think this or that economic system is godless. I don’t think God cares about the economy at all.

  8. Hey Jay Carney (aka John Ramos) in case you didn’t know, Aaron is a communications specialist, a communications professional…at a minimum, he’s a person with a communications background.

    Therefore he inherently communicates not only through simple direct discourse but through subtlety and implication.

    He’s able to omit things that he knows and yet we the readers will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though Aaron had stated them.

    When he says “it’s hard out there”, watch out. Its code for setting up another government program, based on the belief that by weakening the strong we’ll strengthen the weak. It’s never worked and never will.

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