What does the American dream mean to you? A house with a white picket fence? Lavish wealth? A life better than your parents’?
Do you think you will be able to achieve the American dream?
In “The American Dream Is Alive and Well,” Samuel J. Abrams writes:
I am pleased to report that the American dream is alive and well for an overwhelming majority of Americans.
This claim might sound far-fetched given the cultural climate in the United States today. Especially since President Trump took office, hardly a day goes by without a fresh tale of economic anxiety, political disunity or social struggle. Opportunities to achieve material success and social mobility through hard, honest work — which many people, including me, have assumed to be the core idea of the American dream — appear to be diminishing.
But Americans, it turns out, have something else in mind when they talk about the American dream. And they believe that they are living it.
Last year the American Enterprise Institute and I joined forces with the research center NORC at the University of Chicago and surveyed a nationally representative sample of 2,411 Americans about their attitudes toward community and society. The center is renowned for offering “deep” samples of Americans, not just random ones, so that researchers can be confident that they are reaching Americans in all walks of life: rural, urban, exurban and so on. Our findings were released on Tuesday as an American Enterprise Institute report.
What our survey found about the American dream came as a surprise to me. When Americans were asked what makes the American dream a reality, they did not select as essential factors becoming wealthy, owning a home or having a successful career. Instead, 85 percent indicated that “to have freedom of choice in how to live” was essential to achieving the American dream. In addition, 83 percent indicated that “a good family life” was essential.
The “traditional” factors (at least as I had understood them) were seen as less important. Only 16 percent said that to achieve the American dream, they believed it was essential to “become wealthy,” only 45 percent said it was essential “to have a better quality of life than your parents,” and just 49 percent said that “having a successful career” was key.
The Opinion piece continues:
The data also show that most Americans believe themselves to be achieving this version of the American dream, with 41 percent reporting that their families are already living the American dream and another 41 percent reporting that they are well on the way to doing so. Only 18 percent took the position that the American dream was out of reach for them
Collectively, 82 percent of Americans said they were optimistic about their future, and there was a fairly uniform positive outlook across the nation. Factors such as region, urbanity, partisanship and housing type (such as a single‐family detached home versus an apartment) barely affected these patterns, with all groups hovering around 80 percent. Even race and ethnicity, which are regularly cited as key factors in thwarting upward mobility, corresponded to no real differences in outlook: Eighty-one percent of non‐Hispanic whites; 80 percent of blacks, Hispanics and those of mixed race; and 85 percent of those with Asian heritage said that they had achieved or were on their way to achieving the American dream.
Students, read the entire article, then tell us:
— What does the American dream mean to you? Did reading this article change your definition? Do you think your own dreams are different from those of your parents at your age? Your grandparents?
— Do you believe your family has achieved, or is on the way to achieving, the American dream? Why or why not? Do you think you will be able to achieve the American dream when you are older? What leads you to believe this?
— Do you think the American dream is available to all Americans or are there boundaries and obstacles for some? If yes, what are they?
— The article concludes:
What conclusions should we draw from this research? I think the findings suggest that Americans would be well served to focus less intently on the nastiness of our partisan politics and the material temptations of our consumer culture, and to focus more on the communities they are part of and exercising their freedom to live as they wish. After all, that is what most of us seem to think is what really matters — and it’s in reach for almost all of us.
Do you agree? What other conclusions might be drawn? Does this article make you more optimistic about this country and your future?
— Is the American dream a useful concept? Is it helpful in measuring our own or our country’s health and success? Do you believe it is, or has ever been, an ideal worth striving for? Is there any drawback to continuing to use the concept even as its meaning evolves?
Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.