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Saving the American Dream

By Hillary Clinton, Tom Carper, and Tom Vilsack

For 230 years, Americans have been united by a simple, common dream that tomorrow will be better than today. The promise of American life, handed on through a dozen generations, rests on this basic bargain: All of us should have the opportunity to live up to our God-given potential, and the responsibility to make the most of it.

In the 20th century, that basic bargain built the greatest middle class the world has ever known. The expansion of opportunity in return for hard work and sacrifice made us the richest, safest, strongest nation on earth, and enabled us to defeat fascism and communism. We ended the last century with America's economic might at its zenith, with Americans at their most optimistic, and with nearly all who endeavored to make the most of their opportunities and talents getting ahead in life.

Over the last five years we've taken a different direction -- one that offered the greatest help to those with the most wealth, under the mistaken belief that when the wealthy do even better, the middle class will eventually get their share. But this economic philosophy has shortchanged America and failed the middle class, too. For the first time ever, we've had four straight years of rising productivity and falling incomes. Americans are earning less, while the costs of a middle-class life have soared: In the past five years, college costs are up 50 percent, health care 73 percent, and gasoline more than 100 percent.

U.S. companies and workers face new challenges because they have to compete against companies and workers from other countries that have made education the top national priority, take energy efficiency seriously, and spend half as much on health care as we do.

These trends aren't just a burden for middle-class families. They undermine our way of life, because middle-class strength and growth have been the backbone of America.

Together we can face that challenge. Throughout our history, America has responded to new challenges with a new faith in our basic bargain. The world has changed over the past 50 years, and the terms of our basic bargain must keep pace.

The chance for every American to get ahead, regardless of background, is the engine of America's economic growth and social progress. A growing economy and a growing middle class go hand in hand. To remain strong in the world, the American Dream must be strong and alive here at home. And as we continue to navigate through these changing economic times, restoring the promise of the American Dream is the central economic issue of our time.

That's why the three of us have spent the past year developing the American Dream Initiative, an opportunity agenda for the middle class and all who aspire to join it. With the help of leading thinkers from across the Democratic Party, we developed a set of new ideas for the Democratic Leadership Council's National Conversation in Denver in July. Our vision is straightforward and clear -- to leave our children a richer, safer, smarter, and stronger nation than the one we inherited. We will offer a new opportunity agenda that secures the pillars of the American Dream:

Every American should have the opportunity and responsibility to go to college and earn a degree, and to get the lifelong training they need.

Every worker should have the opportunity and responsibility to save for a secure retirement.

Every business should have the opportunity to grow and prosper in the strongest private economy on Earth, and the responsibility to equip workers with the same tools of success as management.

Every individual should have the opportunity and responsibility to start building wealth from day one, and the security and community that come from owning a home.

Every family should have the opportunity to afford health insurance for their children, and the responsibility to obtain it.

Of all the aspirations that make up the American Dream, perhaps the most important is the opportunity to go to college. College is the key to whether America will get ahead in a competitive world, and whether we can expand and strengthen the middle class here at home.

We propose a plan to produce one million more college graduates a year by 2015 -- so that within a decade, more than half our young people will finish college with a degree. Paid for by getting rid of wasteful business subsidies, our plan consolidates existing tax credits into a new $3,000 refundable tax credit for four years of college or training, and proposes a performance-based block grant that will enable states to reduce tuition costs and increase graduation rates. Together, these ideas will make it possible for any student willing to work part-time or perform community service to go to college for four years tuition-free.

The pillars of the American Dream -- a college degree, a home, a secure retirement, and the chance to get ahead in a growing economy -- are central to our basic values. When we demand responsibility, it makes our families, our markets, and our democracy stronger. When our success depends on how hard we work, not how well we're born, there is no limit to how high we'll reach or how far we'll go.

America needs a new direction steeped in our oldest values. The struggles of the last few years are America's past, not America's future. The American Dream has just begun.

Hillary Clinton is a U.S. senator from New York and chair of the Democratic Leadership Council's American Dream Initiative. Tom Carper is a U.S. senator from Delaware and vice chair of the DLC. Tom Vilsack is governor of Iowa and chair of the DLC.

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