Is the American dream available to everyone?
- The “American dream” was coined by author James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book Epic of America, and refers to the belief that anyone can achieve their own version of success “in a society in which upward mobility is possible for everyone.”
- Michelle Obama said at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, “Barack knows the American dream because he’s lived it, and he wants everyone in this country to have that same opportunity, no matter who we are or where we’re from or what we look like or who we love.”
- A 2019 Gallup poll found most Americans still believe the American dream is attainable, with 29% disagreeing. A 2020 Walton Family Foundation and Eschelon Insights poll reported similar results.
- Famous historical American Dreamers include Booker T. Washington (writer of Up From Slavery), Thomas Edison (inventor of the light bulb), the Wright Brothers (pioneers of the airplane), Madame C. J. Walker (“the first Black woman millionaire in America”), Albert Einstein (a German-born US immigrant where he became a world-renown scientist), and many more.
- Five of the top countries with the highest immigrant population are the US (48.2m), Russia (11.6m), Saudi Arabia (10.8m), Germany (10.2m), and the UK (8.4m). Five countries with the highest rates of emigration are India (15.9m), Mexico (12.5m), Russia (10.4m), and China (9.7m).
The American dream is not universal; the promise that everyone can reach the same success equally is impossible. The advantage of inherited wealth, expensive higher education, and the persistence of poverty wages all ensure that only a select few people will achieve the American dream.
The possibility of inheriting wealth ensures that Americans don't begin on a level playing field. Macroeconomists Gale and Sholz estimated that 50% of capital stock is accounted for by intergenerational wealth transfers, a figure that has increased since their 1994 study. Inherited wealth guarantees financial success for a small subset of the population, but not everyone is afforded this privilege.
Increases in college tuition costs (by 28% between 2009 and 2018) prevent access to higher education by the working class. Combined with the lack of free higher education, the working class is being priced out of higher-paying career opportunities only available to educated people.
Finally, no federal regulation has been made to ensure a living minimum wage since 2009. With no federal guarantee of a living wage, upper-class business owners continue to exploit workers by paying poverty wages. Someone working 60 hours per week (often a requirement to be able to afford housing in the US) making the $7.25/hr minimum wage only makes $22,620.00/year before tax. For someone spending $1,500.00/month in rent, housing alone would deplete nearly 80% of their pre-tax income; HUD recommends spending 30% or less of your income on housing.
The fact that the median male worker cannot support a family of four on one income—a relatively recent but draconian phenomenon—is evidence enough that the American dream is struggling if not already gone.
To quote P. J. O'Rourke, 'Americans will compete at anything.” Competition breeds success, and success leads to fulfilling the American dream. People can sit around and complain (that's easy) or run after their goals. From our inventors and business entrepreneurs, that's what most Americans have done throughout history. The challenge is that the American dream is rarely handed to anyone. It is achieved through initiative, hard work, and dedication. During the early months of the pandemic, for recent example, when much of the country was shut down, there were a record number of new business applications.
When polled, Millennials and Gen Z indicated they still believe in the American dream, even during a pandemic. Sure, some want to live in caution and tear down what helped build this country, but that does nothing but keep the bureaucracy in this country busy. Most Millennials and Gen Z want to achieve success like many Americans, and American immigrants have. Take Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas, a Black man raised in poverty in the segregated south, or Starbucks founder, Howard Schultz—
a real rag to riches success! America always rewards hard work and vision.
For centuries, America has been viewed as the land of opportunity. It is. There is no slowing of immigrants arriving here to achieve success. Asians have traditionally excelled in education, business, and avoiding poverty in America, but now too have African immigrants, particularly Nigerians.
There will always be impediments to success; some self-inflicted, some put in place by others, more often the government. Nonetheless, regardless of counter-effective liberal policies, upward mobility remains achievable in the United States to anyone who wants to work hard to achieve it, whether one is a natural-born American or an immigrant.