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Rich And Poor San Diegans Take Stock Of The American Dream

Aired 9/27/12 on KPBS News.

In San Diego, rich people believe in the American dream because they lived it. Poor people believe because they need to.

— There’s more than one house on the gated property of Bob Shillman, who lives in Rancho Santa Fe. Shillman’s main house is a mansion of stone floors, plush furnishings and soaring windows.

In person, Shillman is clever and boisterous. And he makes no apologies for his opulent surroundings. He says he earned it.

“The people that I know, and I know many businessmen, they were not handed things,” said Shillman. “They did build this. I built this company. I profited, my investors profited, and all my employees.”

Bob Shillman, founder of Cognex Corp., stands next to his family crest in his...
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Above: Bob Shillman, founder of Cognex Corp., stands next to his family crest in his Rancho Santa Fe home.

America is not supposed to be class-based society. But we have always had the rich and the poor, and the gap between them is growing. The rhetoric of this election year often boils down to the question of whether the American dream of social mobility is still a reality.

In San Diego, it’s an ongoing debate on both sides of the income gap.

Shillman is the founder of Cognex Corporation, which makes small computers that control manufacturing tools. At age 66, he says he lived the American dream. His dad ran a small retail store in a run-down part of Boston. And he says if anything is hampering social mobility in the U.S., it’s government regulations that make entrepreneurship difficult.

Asked about the widening gap between rich and poor, he’s not sure he accepts the premise of the question.

“I think the definition of poor today is they don’t have a 50-inch flat-screen TV,” he said. “How can you be poor, Tom… how can you say somebody is poor if they have a cell phone?”

Kathleen Krantz has a cell phone. She also lives in her car.

Kathleen Krantz became homeless in San Diego after moving here from northern ...
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Above: Kathleen Krantz became homeless in San Diego after moving here from northern California.

Krantz is 64 years old. She gravitated to San Diego from northern California along with two college-age children. Her daughter is going to community college, and she’s also homeless.

“Daughter is living in her car. We park next to one another every night. We watch over each other,” said Krantz.

Krantz said she grew up poor near the Oregon border where her stepfather sorted potatoes and drew unemployment. When asked how she came to be homeless, Krantz tells of many mishaps, including being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She said her divorce, after 20 years of marriage, left her with little for retirement.

“Because I was a wife and didn’t work, and didn’t build my Social Security because I thought I would be married still, I ended up with a very mere $288 in Social Security benefits,” she said.

We’ll hear from Krantz again. But first let’s go back to Rancho Santa Fe, where Marianne McDonald lives in a dark, sprawling house that’s showing its age. Unlike Shillman, McDonald inherited her wealth from her father, who was a co-founder of Zenith Corporation.

Her view of the income gap is also different.

“I think there’s an obscenity in the world’s concentration of wealth. And I’d love to do my bit toward it, but it’s so hard for an individual to figure that,” she said.

Both McDonald and Shillman have given much of their fortunes to charity. And at age 75, McDonald still teaches classics at UC San Diego. She said Aristotle distrusted the poor and the rich because, he believed, the first would do anything to better themselves, and the latter fell victim to power madness.

But if a large middle class is the ideal, San Diegan Hafsa Mohamed doesn’t see that happening in America’s bifurcated economy.

The daughter of Somalian refugees, Mohamed comes from a low-income family in City Heights. Her mother had to work two jobs to support six children after her husband was deported for immigration fraud. Thanks to student loans, Mohamed is attending San Diego State.

She says American society is stacked against social mobility.

“Right now there’s just none of that. There people looking down and people looking up and there’s tons of barriers,” said Mohamed.

Bob Shillman disagrees.

“Everybody in this country has opportunity,” said Shillman. “What’s important is to rise above the thought that you are doomed to poverty.”

Actually, that second statement is something people agree on. Despite her low-income childhood, Mohamed says she will get her PhD. Krantz says her son and daughter will have a college education, and they will do better than she has done.

“I wanted them to set their star up there and grab for it, whatever it is,” said Krantz.

Call it the American dream, but living without it is living without hope. And that’s something nobody wants.

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Avatar for user 'aponderer'

aponderer | September 27, 2012 at 9:04 a.m. ― 4 years, 5 months ago

I felt compelled to say something when I heard Mr. Schillman. I completely agree that he earned what he has and worked for what he has achievedt. I do feel that he is out of touch; there is definitely a separation of classes going on in the US. Living in a community like Rancho Santa Fe (and North County Coastal in general) does not expose its residents to a true feel of what's going on in middle and low income communities, nor in the world. I find this to be true after moving to Encinitas from South County. Most North County residents I have encountered rarely leave California, much less the the country, and I know SEVERAL that have not even ventured out of San Diego COUNTY. For Mr. Schillman to say "How can you be poor, Tom… how can you say somebody is poor if they have a cell phone?” reflects a person that is completely out of touch with reality, comfortably living under his rock in a plush mansion with everything he ever wanted, and completely oblivious to the world. He needs to pay a visit to remote towns in Niger where they have cell phones, and repeat that foolishly oblivious and myopic comment. That certainly proves that even a wealthy, educated man can be ignorant.

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Avatar for user 'aponderer'

aponderer | September 27, 2012 at 9:44 a.m. ― 4 years, 5 months ago

I was just thinking that perhaps Niger, Africa wouldn't fairly relate to Mr. Schillman's comment; so I will give examples of U.S. cities that have cell phones that can't be considered as "middle class". In comparison to the rest of the country, they fall under "poor/low income neighborhoods": Detroit, Michigan; Allen, South Dakota; Cuevitas, texas; Jackson, Mississippi to name only a few..Mr. Schillman should go spend the night in one of these cities, or even speak to the parents at the Second Street Learning Center in Reading Pennsylvania (NPR covered that story on July 10, 2012) and look the people staying there in the eye and tell them that "they are not poor because they have a cell phone".

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | September 27, 2012 at 12:03 p.m. ― 4 years, 5 months ago

Aponderer, you couldn't be more on target. Mr. Shillman is as out of touch with working America as Romney is, Limbo the Cheese, or Wm F. Buckley was in his days. It would have been VERY interesting if Mr. Fudge had written something on his educational/work b.g.

“I think the definition of poor today is they don’t have a 50-inch flat-screen TV,” he said. “How can you be poor, Tom… how can you say somebody is poor if they have a cell phone?”

I guess most things are relevant, then. THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940) was banned by the USSR because it showed EVEN American poor riding around in pick-up trucks that were by then already more than ten years old--and that would have contradicted Stalinist ideology.

But the fact of the matter is, Mr. Shillman, the purchasing power of the working man and woman has barely risen since the early 80s which was shortly after I graduated from high school. It doesn't matter if you get a higher paying job or you work more hours or they raise the minimum wage, as long as the cost of living keeps rising, even if it were at the same pace, we are almost at the same spot that we were then. And NO amount of "opportunity" talk can change that cold hard fact.

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Avatar for user 'randolphslinky'

randolphslinky | September 27, 2012 at 1:17 p.m. ― 4 years, 5 months ago

The American middle class have been slipping quite a bit in recent decades and the number of "poor" growing. While American still remains a place for great opportunity, it's getting harder and harder, at least in my opinion, to maintain the middle class lifestyle. While I do feel pity for the poor, and in fact grew up with people around who would fit that definition, I have seen examples of behavior that fuels the argument from the wealthy that too many people have a sense of "entitlement." I've seen for example, that too often the poor just keep having kids? They spend money on non-essentials, tattoos, piercings, and get involved in behavior such as drug use that ensures they'll likely flunk a urine test if they are even considered for a job. There's the working hard but poor anyway, and then there's just poor because you continue to make bad choices and behave badly. It's hard to feel much sympathy for that segment, and we shouldn't enable and encourage them with our pity.

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Avatar for user 'aponderer'

aponderer | September 27, 2012 at 2:35 p.m. ― 4 years, 5 months ago

Randolph. there is much to be said about the wealthy's non-essential spending, for example Doug Manchester, the owner of the Union-Tribune and North County times. He spent $200,000 on his 65th birthday party at his namesake Manchester Grand Hyatt in 2007, then jetted to Costa Rica for a lavish week-long cruise ($350,000) aboard a 165-foot yacht. His wife estimated their monthly utilities bill at their former home ($7,000) is more than most San Diegans' monthly home payments. We also have another RSF resident, Gwendolyn Sontheim Meyer worth billions, and even Mr. Schillman will never spend all of his money in his lifetime. So the wealthy you say claim that too many people "have a sense of entitlement" should put their money where their mouth is. For one, many of these "poor" do not live in a wealthy area, and that directly correlates with the quality of education. Second, they are not likely to be elbowing or living among the influential (contacts are an important part of succeeding, as unfortunate as it sounds) .Why don't the wealthy do something to educate the less fortunate? Fund more academic programs and more after school activities to keep kids out of trouble? Bill and Melinda Gates, Oprah, Warren Buffet, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and others have actively been involved in helping the less fortunate--they don't bellyache about the ones who feel "entitled"--THEY ACT..Ironically the ones who have this "sense of entitlement" are more often the wealthy than not.

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Avatar for user 'llk'

llk | September 27, 2012 at 3:09 p.m. ― 4 years, 5 months ago

Randolph, you can go ahead and judge poor people all you like, pity some but not others, and criticize poor people's decisions without knowing who they really are. But please don't tell me how to feel, and please don't forget that a lot of wealthy people make some pretty poor decisions too. Thanks.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | September 28, 2012 at 10:19 a.m. ― 4 years, 5 months ago

Correction to my post. I meant to say relative not relevant.

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Avatar for user 'randolphslinky'

randolphslinky | September 28, 2012 at 10:37 a.m. ― 4 years, 5 months ago

I certainly did not come from a background of wealth or entitlement, and I doubt most of you on here were any closer to poverty than I was growing up. While I've come a long ways from those days in my time - it's clear to me that many people never move beyond it because of personal choices. Yes, it's harder when you're from the back woods or the ghetto to get a leg up, but no one owes you anything. The faster you get that, the faster you'll make progress. Someone mentioned Oprah on here as an example of a wealthy person who has been generous - good for her. Take a look at Oprah's life, look what happened to her and where she came from. I'll bet you'll find that she didn't get to where she is today by gathering up her arguments against those who had it better. If you want to be happy, plan to do so without conditions, and work, work, work at it. That's the best anyone can do and anything less is you wallowing in your own self pity and I won't help people like this.

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Avatar for user 'aponderer'

aponderer | September 28, 2012 at 1:12 p.m. ― 4 years, 5 months ago

Nobody here disagrees with your point of succeeding by "work,work,work[ing] at it", that no one owes you anything, and not wallowing in self pity. Nobody on this post ever said anything to the contrary. If YOU take a look at Oprah's life, she succeeded once she was with her father, who pushed her to succeed, and taught her discipline--i.e. avoiding bad choices, keeping her focus on education and succeeding. Some kids (and adults) don't have that support and desperately need it. You are quick to say that the poor (in general) feel "entitled" by engaging in destructive/unfavorable behavior, by stereotyping. Any of us who have succeeded can look back and point at one person who had a great influence in our lives; others don't have that and are misguided. I have known wealthy kids whose parents allowed them too many freedoms and were not involved in their lives other than financing their bad habits-- tattoos, piercings, and getting involved in behavior such as drug use that ensured a failed flunk a urine test if they were even considered for a job. It bothers me that you say that an "argument from the wealthy [is] that too many people have a sense of "entitlement." ' Entitlement is not something that only falls on the poor. And that still makes Mr. Schillman's argument that if you have a cell phone "you're not poor"-foolish.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | October 1, 2012 at 12:19 a.m. ― 4 years, 5 months ago

The article mentions this woman had many things that led her to homelessness, including cancer.

I think that healthcare is, along with education, a major contemporary civil rights issue.

Unlike the rest of the developed world, we have a healthcare system that is designed to only help those with means.

No other developed nation experiences medical bankruptcies, but in the U.S. they are rampant and often contributors to poverty.

A nation as rich as ours should provide healthcare to ALL citizens.

I saw an interview with Ann Romney where she says her and Mitt understand the hardships people go through in "different ways" than worrying about money.

She then goes on to describe her health issues.

Yes, health problems are stressful for EVERYONE regardless of socioeconomics, however there is an added layer of worry and torment when you are poor and get sick and have to worry about not only getting better but how to pay for it too.

This is what the Romney's don't get.

Ms. Romney has had terrible health problem but she also had the luxury of not having to worry about paying for the best doctors money can buy while servants took cre of what she couldn't do while she was sick.

And yet her husband Mitt opposes health care reform that helps the poor obtain medical insurance.

I would be interested to hear more from Krantz about how her health diagnosis contributed to her homelessness because I believe healthcare being the cause, or one of the causes of sending someone into poverty is far more common in America than many want to admit.

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Avatar for user 'benz72'

benz72 | October 1, 2012 at 9:35 a.m. ― 4 years, 5 months ago

I'm not going to try to speak for Mr. Shillman but what I took from his commentary was that even those we currently think of as poor have a considerable number of expensive material possessions (cell phones, cars, &c.). This contrasts with a more historical view of what level of wealth is required to no longer be “poor”.

I am also not going to attempt to plan Mrs. Krantz’s finances for her, but there are a number of places in the country with significantly lower costs of living where her $288 would go a lot farther than in SD County.

Education and wealth do correlate, but that does not imply that people of any means cannot become educated. There are very few universities without merit based scholarships. Wikiversity has almost 20,000 learning resources and Wikibooks is providing an increasingly comprehensive selection of free textbooks. MIT and Harvard offer free courses through edX. I find it difficult to accept claims regarding a lack of educational opportunity. Schools and public libraries make all of these resources available to those without computers.
Lack of motivation and direction are certainly issues, but they are not indictments supporting some perceived lack of philanthropy.

The discussion of wasting money on tattoos &c. misses part of the point by not placing in context the importance of that money to an individual for other things. The cost of a $200 tattoo and an $88 cell phone bill is apparently enough to sustain Mrs. Krantz for a month. Some things are more important than others. For full disclosure, I don’t have a cell phone, flat screen TV, or a tattoo so I can’t comment firsthand about how important they are, but I certainly consider them unnecessary luxuries.

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