Earlier this winter, I went to the Association of American Colleges & Universities annual conference in Washington, where I attended the women’s networking breakfast.

OK, I thought, I’ll see some friends and spend a pleasant hour learning something interesting. And there will be food.

Our speaker was Dr. Radhika Balakrishnan, executive director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Her topic was “Macroeconomics and Human Rights.” Oi, I thought, maybe I’d better concentrate on the muffins.

But, guess what? Her talk was a real eye-opener. It wasn’t about people in some backward foreign country; it was about us.

Dr. B. presented us with a short list of six human rights principles connected with basic human well-being.

Here are the two I think are relevant today.

First is “The Requirement for Progressive Realization,” that is, if you work hard, you will benefit materially from your labor, and if you stick with your employment you’ll do a little better over time.

The second one is “The Avoidance of Retrogression,” that is, if you consistently work hard over a career you’ll maintain your economic well-being; you won’t go backward.

These two principles are at the core of the American Dream. This dream — the freedom and ability to construct a better life and pass it on to one’s children — has brought people from all over the world to settle here, raise families, and contribute to our civic culture and national identity.

This has been going on ever since our nation was founded; in fact, for much longer than that.

The horrible truth that Dr. B showed us, however, using U.S. Census data, is this: since the mid-1970s the American Dream has totally evaporated for people at the lower end of the economic spectrum.

Wages are not keeping up and incomes for the lowest-earning families are going backward.

Here’s one way to see it: While the productivity of the work force in the United States has been rising steadily since the late 1970s, the average wages for production and non-supervisory workers have remained flat or even declined.

This is bad. It means that while our industrial processes have become more efficient, the benefit from those advances is not being shared by the work force. The company shareholders — yes; the upper-level managers — yes; the workers — no.

And note that this trend has been consistent whether the economy has been good or bad.

And here’s another amazing fact: since 1979, the top 5 percent of families, those who make $200,000 and up, have seen their incomes rise by almost 73 percent, while those in the lowest group, who make less than $26,974 per family, have actually seen their incomes fall by 7.4 percent.

This information makes it more understandable to me why the “Occupy” movement had so much initial appeal. People were reacting to a felt sense of rising income inequality, and a realization that they are falling behind in ways that are not part of “the way it’s supposed to be” here in America.

The call in Maine and across the country for more people of all ages to complete a college degree comes from these facts, too. Jobs with low skill levels are simply not able to provide wages that sustain families over time.

This is true regardless of whether the jobs actually exist anymore. So as a matter of survival, people’s skill levels have to increase. The best way to accomplish this is by additional education.

I’ll have more to say about this the next time I write.

Theodora J. Kalikow is president of the University of Maine at Farmington. She can be reached at [email protected]

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