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Teddy Cohan Headshot

Reclaiming the American Dream

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I believe in a story.

A story that began in 1630 on the Arbella, when John Winthrop told his fellow countrymen that their new colony would be a "shining city upon a hill" with the "eyes of all people upon us." The next chapter of the story started in 1776 with our Declaration of Independence and a belief that "all men are created equal." These are the ideals our nation was founded upon: That any man, woman or child, regardless of race, creed or ethnicity is guaranteed not just an opportunity, but the equality of opportunity to create a life you desire based on your merit alone. This is the essence of the American Dream, the notion that anything is within reach if you are only willing to work hard enough for it. While our critics have been forced to crane their necks upward and stare in awe, our grand American experiment has become a beacon of hope and an emblem of freedom for all. For generations, this has been an inclusive nation: our ancestors upon reaching Ellis Island and gazing at the Statue of Liberty were told that this country was different: "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" because here a better life was possible due to a commitment to morality and the middle class.

But no good story is worth its salt if its protagonist doesn't have to deal with adversity. In 1971, Lewis Powell argued that business leaders should turn their financial power into political might to have their interests represented in Washington, spawning an era that has created a wealth chasm between the one percent and the 99 percent that threatens to tear apart this nation. As Hedrick Smith has stated, from 1998 through 2010, business interests outspent labor on lobbying by nearly a 60-to-one advantage. In 2010, while in the midst of the economic recovery, the top one percent captured 93 percent of the nation's economic gains. Worse still, the median income in 2012 was the same as it was in 1989, while the top one percent has watched its income triple during the same period. In other words, none of the wealth that this country has created in the past 20-plus years has gone towards improving the lives of ordinary Americans. Being part of the middle class in America today brings neither the economic security, nor the promise of a better future that it once guaranteed. Among developed nations, only Britain and Italy trail our beloved Land of Opportunity in social mobility and, today, America has the highest level of income inequality of any industrialized economy. How could a country founded on the inalienable right to equality of opportunity have allowed this to happen?

The current American system is not only immoral, and fails to live up to the ideals laid out by Winthrop -- to be a city upon a hill -- but also threatens our long-term prospects for economic growth -- an economic engine that has made America the most productive economy the the world has ever known. The once vibrant American middle class, our true job creators, is too weak to support the type of consumer spending that has historically been proven to drive economic growth. It is no coincidence that the last era of enormous income and wealth inequality -- the 1920s -- led to the Great Depression. Not only does economic inequality lead to economic instability, but also to political inequality and a broken decision-making process, which, unfortunately, we see everyday by observing who Washington works for. Here's a hint: It's not everyday Americans.

Our story, our experiment, to create a world where hard work leads to a better life -- the American Dream -- is slowly dying. But we are not a nation of quitters. We didn't give up during the Great Depression -- we passed some of the most momentous legislation in our nation's history. We didn't give up when Pearl Harbor was bombed -- we went out and won the war. We didn't give up on 9/11 -- we vanquished al-Qaeda and killed Osama Bin Laden. And we won't give up now, either. We can fix this.

The Student Loan Fairness Act will soon stand before the House of Representatives and embodies a golden opportunity to save the American Dream. Currently, student loan debt exceeds one trillion dollars, affecting 37 million young Americans -- our future. The Act would create a new "10-10" standard for student loan repayment, where individuals would make 10 years of payments at 10 percent of their annual income, after which, their remaining student loan debt would be relieved. While the children of the wealthy know little about it, these spiraling debts are crippling and bankrupting a whole generation of students who are simply trying to grasp a piece of the American Dream by going to college. Let's give these people the opportunity to hit the ground running rather than having their hands tied behind their backs from the outset. Simply redistributing our economic pie will not do; we need to make it bigger but in a way that is fairer. Reducing student debt will encourage college graduates to work hard to realize their dreams, creating a work force with the skills to be productive in a modern economy. Though this may not end wealth inequality, it is a start towards reclaiming the American Dream for more than 37 million student loan borrowers by investing in what makes America great: its people. Sign the petition for this bill and contact your congressman today.

We are not a collection of red states and blue states, but a collection of red, white and blue states. This is not a partisan issue. This is about restoring the vision of our founding fathers of an inclusive nation faithful to morality and the middle class. A country dedicated to equality of opportunity for all and not for a small minority.

We are now the ones writing our story, and if I know anything from watching Hollywood movies, it's that this country likes a happy ending. Let's write one together.