Ben Cochran

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts (BA)


Politics and International Relations


The American ethos is fiercely devoted to the idea that a person’s fate is not determined by their roots. Success is the product of hard work, resiliency, and strong character, the narrative goes. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Horatio Alger wrote novels about poor teenage boys achieving the luxury and stability of middle-class life through courage and honesty. His books reflected and helped enshrine a deep belief in opportunity and self-improvement. Necessarily, the other half of this national ethos is more vindictive. Just as success is attributed to hard work and strong virtue, poverty is understood as a matter of personal moral failure.

Americans have often rubbed against this particular strain of national thought. Since the earliest days of American history, stretching across place and time, people have come to believe that the promise of opportunity was a raw deal. The historical record provides ample evidence of people disillusioned with the American Dream and dissatisfied with the inequities of the economic system. Billy Joel, for instance, once reflected on the dissonance between expectations and reality for those affected by deindustrialization. He sang: We’re waiting here in Allentown, for the Pennsylvania we never found. For the promises our teachers gave—if we worked hard, if we behaved. So the graduations hang on the wall, but they never really helped us at all… Every child had a pretty good shot to get at least as far as their old man got, but something happened on the way to that place. Today, the bulk of the research on opportunity and mobility vindicates Joel’s sentiments.