My view: The American Dream: Rethinking mobility in Utah

By Thomas Nielson

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, April 27 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

People walk around downtown Salt Lake City Friday, April 18, 2014.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

I am the American Dream. I will be graduating from Brigham Young University in a few short weeks, but I already have a job that pays me well. I own a nice, albeit small, home in Provo and I have basically anything I could ever want. I am the American dream because I made myself into what I am today. I started mopping floors in a restaurant five years ago and have since worked my way up to be a general manager over multiple stores.

I love the restaurant industry and my plan is to own franchises of the restaurant that I currently manage and one day open my own restaurant, a barbecue joint. What can be more American than that? But it isn’t all fireworks and flag waving. Did you know that the restaurant industry is one of the riskiest in America? But I am a risk-taker and that is part of the America Dream, too: go big or go home.

Home actually has a lot to do with my realization of the American Dream. I did not grow up in Utah; I am originally from Vienna, Virginia, a suburb west of Washington. Last year my hometown was ranked the third-best place to live in the United States by CNN, and my county is the third wealthiest county in the U.S. So my story is not exactly a rags-to-riches kind of story.

Sure, I made it on my own, at least so far, but I am a product of my upbringing: even if my upbringing didn't pay my way, economically. Where we come from has a lot to do with what kind of invisible resources we have to help us succeed.

Invisible resources are forms of capital that are intangible and widely unrecognized. I grew up in a great environment and I was raised in ways such that I acquired invisible resources that I didn’t appreciate until I started looking at my own future. In Salt Lake City, only 11 percent of poor people (in the bottom quintile of incomes) have a chance to earn as much as the wealthiest top fifth, according to a study by the Equality of Opportunity Project at Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley. Surprisingly, that low number is the highest in the nation among big cities. Why does Utah have such relatively high upward mobility? Because, like me, many people born here in Utah benefit from invisible resources like strong families, affordable higher education and good public schools that promote upward mobility.

Not everything is just dollars and cents. There are certain intangible traits that we need to start recognizing because they play a major role in our success. It is easy to look at someone who is disadvantaged and think, “why don’t they just get a job and make some money and move themselves out of poverty?” Perhaps they are lacking in the non-economic capital that is required to be upwardly mobile these days. They are missing that support structure that has allowed me to follow my dream and take risks.

So, to all those that have made it on your own, open your eyes — you might find you are a bigger product of your environment than you once thought. Before you look down on someone else for not pulling themselves up with their bootstraps, remember what aspects of their environment might be limiting their progress.

Many people in Utah are blessed to be in a similar situation as I am. We can do more to help. Provo’s Community Action sponsors a program called Circles that teaches those stuck in the cycle of poverty problem-solving and critical thinking skills. The Circles initiative pairs up impoverished people with people from other economic classes. These people provide the invisible resources and support structure necessary to break the cycle of poverty. We need to support programs like Circles to promote upwardly mobile in our communities. Upward mobility is the American dream.

Thomas Nielson is originally from Vienna, Va., and has lived in Provo for the past six years. He currently manages several restaurants in the Provo area.

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