Before the speech, I asked what's the statute of limitations on a humble upbringing? Based on the multi-millionaire's comments last night, it seems that having a father who worked in a mill (some of the time as a supervisor!) means never having to say you're wealthy. As a refugee from a lower-middle-class family myself, I'm a sucker for stories of upward class drift. But besides not being unique, Edwards' tale is not even particularly entertaining. Doesn't anyone else remember the bitchfest between former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and Sen. Robert Byrd from a few years back, where that well-padded duo argued over whose childhood ditch was deeper? Now that was good fun.
The Tarheel State senator gets a lot of mileage out of being in the first generation of his family to go to college (welcome to the club, bub). But attending college–something almost two-thirds of high school grads do routinely now–didn't become a truly mass experience until the 1970s. If you're Edwards' age, of course you're the first generation in your family to go to college (that is, unless you come from families like John Kerry's or George W. Bush's). The better indicator of an impoverished background would be whether you were the first to finish high school. In 1970, only 11 percent of the US adult population had a B.A. and only barely more than half had a high school sheepskin (look all that up and more here). In 2002, the last year for which data is listed in the Statistical Abstract of the United States, 27 percent of adults boasted a B.A., the highest level ever (and it will only keep going up). And basically everyone graduates from high school (which is one reason why that achievement is discounted).
I raise this because I wonder whether John Edwards' "Two Americas" rap will hold up over the longer haul of the campaign? It's a good shtick in the abstract, but for most people, the last 30 years or so has been a flight into comfortable, though anxiety-ridden, living, especially when it comes to once-luxury items such as access to college and home ownership (also at a historic high). And there are also signs that whatever economic caste system exists in the U.S., it may be breaking down. As economists Daniel P. McMurrer and Isabel Sawhill have have concluded after looking at intergenerational earnings, "Success is less likely to be inherited than it was in earlier years, suggesting that the American playing field is becoming more equal." Such findings are hardly definitive–there's also evidence that class mobility is either slowing down or was never as frictionless as once supposed. In any case, actual material conditions may be less important than anxiety and worries about being left behind.
However the "Two Americas" spiel may play out in terms of the voting public, I've got to say that Edwards' insistence (and those of his fans) on his parents' poor cash flow 60 years ago has worn as thin as a polyester suit for me. Really, you should have to get a new rap once you've made your first million–especially if you made your pile, as Edwards did, in an America that had enacted Republican-inspired income tax reductions and that rejected, for the most part, the protectionist trade policies that Kerry/Edwards seem hell-bent (or at least half-bent) on restoring.