Cracks in the American Dream
Deep within our national psyche lies the compelling allure of what we call the American Dream. It was manifest even at our country’s founding. As the signers of the Declaration of Independence announced to the world: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” From this and other pronouncements, the United States gained the reputation as the land of opportunity, serving as a magnet to millions of immigrants searching for a better life. While some among these voluntary immigrants1 were ﬂeeing religious or political oppression, most came with the desire for a fresh start and a fair chance to get ahead. Although many of us are separated by generations from our ancestors who ﬁrst came to this land, the American Dream still frames our perceptions as we consider our future. Our individual aspirations are unique to our personal circumstances and experi-
ences. Yet, our dreams share common themes that comprise the larger American Dream. Given credit for coining the term, James Truslow Adams (1941) described it as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement … regardless of fortuitous circumstances of birth or position” (p. 214-15). As suggested by Adams, the American Dream comprises two key points. Primarily, it is about the opportunity for upward mobility. If I work hard and play by the rules, my eﬀorts will bear measurable fruit. For some, this might mean completing high school or college to gain a steady, well-paying job. For others, it entails owning a home or running a business. For most, it means achieving suﬃcient ﬁnancial security to retire comfortably and to oﬀer their children a better start to their lives. In addition, Adams said the American Dream is not available to a few, but aﬀorded
to all Americans. As each generation comes of age, all Americans should have the opportunity to attain measurable upward mobility. The reality of general improvement from one generation to the next has sus-
tained the American Dream to the present. The U.S. economy has served as a powerful engine for improving the material conditions of most Americans and aﬃrming the prospect of upward mobility. Even among those who experienced little gain in their own lifetime, they watched their children grasp increased opportunities and claim greater rewards. Most of us can see material improvements in subsequent generations as we trace back our ancestry. Even among those excluded from this history, the Dream’s pervasive appeal oﬀers hope they can change their family’s fortunes. To be sure, our laws and social norms have systematically excluded certain groups from living the dream. European immigrants removed or exterminated the native populations they encountered, enslaved Africans, and excluded Asians and Latinos from opportunity and property. For much of our history, the American Dream eﬀectively had a “Whites Only” sign. In recent decades, the overtly racist laws and structures have been overturned, giving some hope we might ﬁnally realize the promise oﬀered over two centuries ago. Today, there is a new threat to the future of the American Dream. Numerous
reports have documented rising income inequality as growing numbers of households have slipped from middle-class status. According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2015), real median family income fell from 2000 to 2010, the ﬁrst decade to experience such a decline. Other reports cite the rising costs of health insurance, homeownership, and college tuition making it harder for households to attain or keep these symbols of Middle America. In a recent poll, respondents felt by a two to one margin that attaining the American Dream is harder than in past generations; by an even larger margin, they felt it would be harder still for the next generation (Bedard, 2011). In 2012, that bellwether of American culture, Time magazine, questioned its relevance as it ran a cover story titled “The history of the American Dream: Is it still real?” Given the trauma of the Great Recession, it is unsurprising that many Americans
are questioning whether the dream still exists. Numerous trends suggest the U.S. economy is experiencing rising inequality thereby jeopardizing its reality for many Americans. In any event, realizing the dream entails the acquisition of household wealth. Buying a home requires cash for a down payment. Gaining ﬁnancial security demands ample savings to draw upon during times of duress. Building a retirement nest egg entails regular deposits into funds that yield rising asset values. Raising kids and oﬀering them a head start in their lives requires more funds to access good schools, support extracurricular activities, and ﬁnance a college education. As Jim Cullen stated in his book The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (2004) attaining the dream requires that individuals have the means to direct their lives. He argued that “all notions of freedom rest on a sense of agency, the idea that individuals have control over the course of their lives. Agency, in turn, lies at the very core of the American Dream, the bedrock premise upon which all else depends” (p. 10). Clearly, achieving the American Dream requires the possession of suﬃcient wealth.