If the American Dream isn’t dead, it’s in big trouble

The American Dream is one of the country’s most attractive founding myths. Ask Americans what the term means and they will provide various definitions that are neither true nor false; people are free to define their core concepts as they see fit.

There is no one American Dream; there are many, based on specific circumstances. Historically, definitions have ranged from religious and political freedom to social equality and economic mobility in the hope that everyone would have an equal chance to succeed.

Sadly, the idea that anyone who really wants to can make their way to the top in the United States may be dead. The ordinary working-class individual would have to be living in a commercial to still believe in the American Dream. When you are poor, trying to get a fair share of the American pie can become a burden that only makes you angry and frustrated.

In 1931, the now obscure historian, James Truslow Adams wrote “The Epic of America,” a book that gave one of the first recorded definitions of the American Dream. He was not writing about consumption, buying things you don’t need and can’t afford with borrowed money. He focused on ideals rather than material goods. According to Adams, the American Dream was:

“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. … It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position”.

He was describing a society that values equality and merit are above all else; with hard work, everything is possible. It doesn’t matter where you are from, what schools you went to, or how much money your parents have. What matters is that if you work hard, you can become anything you want. Everyone in America has a chance to pursue his or her personal vision no matter who you are.

Conversely, success is a choice. It’s your own fault if you don’t make it from rags to riches.

In the wake of the Great Recession and the 2008 financial crisis, many people believe the American Dream is dead. The issue of economic inequality has captured the attention of groups across the social and political spectrum; the general public, policy makers, business people, and academicians. Surveys show that more and more Americans believe income and wealth are distributed unfairly.

Few would deny the growing gap between rich and poor in the United States is at historic levels. Wealth and income imbalances have been documented with monotony.

The inconvenient truth is that the richest 10 percent currently own nearly 60 percent of U.S. wealth. The top 1 percent now earns about 30 percent of total income. The top 0.1 percent earns more than 10 percent. According to the Federal Reserve Board 40 percent of Americans can’t cover a $400 emergency expense.

A number of factors have been suggested as important contributors to the widening gap between the “haves” and “have nots” and the increasing concentration of income and wealth. Among them are globalization, technological advances, crony capitalism, lower taxes on the rich, and government policies and programs.

Until these causes and consequences are addressed, there is no realistic hope for dealing with unacceptable levels of economic inequality in the world’s richest country. America will continue to witness the erosion of the middle class and the creation of a permanent underclass that undermines the conceit of a democratic society in which all people have an equal and inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of their own happiness.

Originally Published: November 19, 2018