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Arkansas and the American Dream

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We’re all familiar with the American Dream — the idea that anyone in the United States can climb the economic ladder of opportunity — but is it still achievable?

In recent years the venerable American dream has become an empty promise for increasing numbers of Americans. Millions of middle class Americans are now unable to maintain the standard of living that they took for granted growing up, and more low-income families are unable to lift themselves out of poverty. As countless Americans struggle with diminished prospects for the future, the nation’s core beliefs about the value of work, the inevitability of progress, the fairness of the system and America’s standing in the world are being shaken. Reviving the American dream has now become one of the most critical challenges facing the country.

 

Arkansas continues to rank among the 10 states with the highest poverty rates, with poverty in the Delta substantially higher than poverty in urban counties. According to the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Research & Extension’s “Rural Profile of Arkansas,” a decline in the historically dominant industries of manufacturing and agriculture is changing the structure and economic base of rural Arkansas. A high percentage of Arkansans live in unincorporated areas and small towns, placing an unusually heavy burden on local governments in rural areas with declining tax bases.

AETN explores how this climate affects the state in our project surrounding “A Deeper Look: The American Dream in Arkansas.” In addition to interviews across the state for social media posts, in a special 30-minute film, AETN will visit two cities facing unique struggles. Most would agree that Blytheville and Pine Bluff have both seen better times – bustling downtown areas, vibrant social scenes and good economies. The downtown streets of both cities are eerily quiet these days. Once beautiful, ornate buildings sit exposed to the elements. At first glance, reflecting on the glory days of these cities, it would appear that the American dream in Arkansas is dead or dying.

We’ll look deeper by spending two weeks immersed in each city, uncovering stories that shed light on the state of the American dream in Arkansas. The result is a half-hour examination of the state of the American dream in the Arkansas Delta.

“We wanted this to be a completely reflective process. We wanted to let the people in these towns tell us their thoughts; it is their town, so it is their story.” - Kevin Clark, AETN Producer and Blytheville native

Airing Friday, Oct. 7, at 8:30 p.m., “A Deeper Look: The American Dream in Arkansas” provides a local introduction to the national piece “Dream On.” Featuring political comedian John Fugelsang, “Dream On” follows him as he retraces the journey of Alexis de Tocqueville, whose study of the country in 1831 came to define America as a place where anyone could climb the economic ladder. Following in the Frenchman’s footsteps, Fugelsang speaks with fast food workers and retirees, prisoners and entrepreneurs, undocumented immigrants and community organizers about their hopes, dreams and daily struggles. “Dream On” explores whether the optimistic spirit of the American dream that Tocqueville observed is alive and well in the 21st century, or whether George Carlin was right when he famously quipped, “It’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

“Most Americans believe that the term ‘working poor’ should be an oxymoron: if you work full time, you should not be poor. But, today, one in four American workers – 30 million people – earn less than the federal poverty level for a family of four.” - Roger Weisberg, director of “Dream On”

The film’s director, Roger Weisburg continued, “Rather than taking a conventional documentary approach to the problem of rising income inequality and declining social mobility, I decided to adopt the cherished American film tradition of the road trip and follow the journey of Alexis de Tocqueville, whose seminal work, ‘Democracy in America,’ helped plant the seeds for what later became known as the American dream. By revisiting the places he wrote about in 1831 and capturing the stories of a diverse group of Americans struggling to climb the economic ladder, we were able to put an intimate human face on the endangered American dream.”

Fugelsang’s reflections on his Tocqueville odyssey are captured in a stand-up comedy monologue woven throughout the documentary. Fugelsang was the host of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and has appeared on CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, Fox News, HBO and NPR. Currently, he hosts a daily political comedy program called “Tell Me Everything” on the new SiriusXM Insight Channel. As a comedian, actor, writer, talk show host and pundit, his eclectic background allows him to bring equal doses of wit and wisdom to the search for the increasingly elusive American Dream.

“We found that the divisions and dysfunction in the areas Tocqueville reported on—in commerce, government, religion, and race relations—were still prevalent and festering today,” Fugelsang said. “We wanted to report on the whole of America in all her imperfect splendor. And, by not turning away from her defects, we wanted to find new reasons to hope. The old adage—that hard work will lead to prosperity—may no longer be true for the majority of Americans. Yet, most of the people I met on my Tocqueville journey still believed in the dream, even when their daily struggles made it feel impossibly out of reach.”

In addition to the premiere of these two new programs, AETN will rebroadcast companion piece “A Deeper Look: The Poverty Divide in Arkansas,” which premiered in June, on Oct. 7 at 8 p.m. The program addresses the struggles of those living in poverty with segments on statistics, rural and urban disparities, veterans and families.

TUNE IN:

Friday, Oct. 7, 2016

“A Deeper Look: The American Dream in Arkansas,” 8:30 p.m.

“Dream On,” 9 p.m.

“A Deeper Look: Poverty and Opportunity in Arkansas,” 8 p.m.

LEARN MORE:

“A Deeper Look”

Major funding was provided by the JPB Foundation. Additional support was provided by the Alda Foundation, Charles A. Frueauff Foundation, Mitzvah Foundation, O Fund, Park Foundation, Silverweed Foundation, and Spunk Fund, Inc.