Scholars continue to debate whether the American Dream, which promises a better future and social mobility to those born in poverty or those migrating to America in search of a better life, exists. Vivian Arrora, a forty-year-old single mother, is emblematic of those who aspire to achieve the American Dream. Growing up in Watts, an impoverished section of Los Angeles, Arrora dreamed of moving away from her gang-infested community and to Culver City, where she could raise her family peacefully in a middle-class home (Shapiro 21). The American Dream has become synonymous with the opportunity to achieve the promises outlined in the Declaration of Independence in the social and economic arenas: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The concept of the individual undergirds the American Dream, as those who work hard will reap the benefits from his or her own labor (Krugman 590). However, skeptics quickly point to the inherent institutional and structural racism that has historically and currently perpetuates social and economic inequality. Blaring examples of inequality render those who still believe in it naïve and ignorant to the harsh reality that America is not a nation built on principles of equality and opportunity for all. The economic growth recently witnessed in America has only benefited a small, wealthy minority of Americans (Krugman 586). Although not all Americans have access to the American Dream, it remains alive but hard to achieve as a result of government initiatives, inherent racism, and the wealth gap between the rich and poor as well as white and black Americans. Ultimately, the American Dream has evolved into an idiosyncratic ideal according to class, race, nationality and gender.
The most significant sign that the American Dream no longer exists lays in the inequality between the rich and the poor as well as white Americans and minorities. Although racial prejudice has significantly declined recently with minorities gaining employment and rising annual income, structural and institutional racism have perpetuated socio-economic inequality and lowered their standard of living. Paul Krugman states in his Confronting Inequality that inequality matters because it dramatically affects people’s standard of living (Krugman 586). Income inequality and the wealth gap exacerbate social inequality and deter people from reaching the American dream (589). Thomas Shapiro argues in The Hidden Cost of Being African American that racial discrimination in areas such as homeownership and inheritance render the progress made through schooling and jobs moot, merely keeping African American families trapped in poverty (Shapiro 2). Bob Herbert, a New York Times columnist, asserted that the American Dream has basically disappeared. The dilapidated state of the economy, public schools and jobs project a country in poor condition. Parents today are pessimistic about the America their children will inherit (Thomas). These sentiments stem from the socio-economic dislocation that has resulted in income inequality. Furthermore, family wealth and assets bolster one’s ability to achieve the American Dream while those without them continue to struggle. Family status and wealth dictate people’s access to education and greatly influenced their annual income. Inherited family status and wealth supersedes talent and dictates one’s ability to succeed and the opportunities they had access to (Krugman 591). Very few African American families living in America possess transformative assets and inherited wealth as opposed to white Americans (Shapiro 48). As a result, regardless of how hard an African American works, he or she may only reach the American Dream to an extent, unlike their white counterpart.
Economic equality not only affects the standard of living for American families, it also corrupts politics and the democratic process touted by Americans. In recent political campaigns, money has dictated government policy. Tax breaks for the very rich and for hedge fund managers for both Democrats and Republicans have sullied the reputation of American politics (Krugman 593). Another poignant example of this corruption is the recent Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United. The 2012 decision allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts of funds to covertly and independently support or oppose candidates for political office (Hasen). Thus, those wealthy enough to contribute millions of dollars towards a candidate vested in the interests of the wealthy rather than the masses have the ability to dictate the political future of America. As a result of political corruption due to income inequality, Americans distrust the government as well as one another (Krugman 594). Thus, the American Dream has become a preserve of a wealthy few, disrupting the social fabric of a nation purportedly built on pillars of freedom, democracy, and equality.
While some observers point to inherent prejudice for the inequality that has corrupted politics, others blame the diminishment of the American Dream on a liberal government viewed as "encroaching, over-taxing, over-spending, and over-regulating" (Thomas). As a result, some Americans have adopted an attitude of entitlement rather than taking personal accountability and initiative to rectify their social and economic lot. Freedom requires responsibility and self-reliance, and some believe that the welfare system has fostered laziness in some Americans who feel entitled to government money rather than wanting to work for it (Nestler). Furthermore, the government has monopolized a public school system that hinders the poor from succeeding because they are forced by the government to stay in school systems with poorly trained teachers and inadequate supplies. As a result, the poor--many of whom are African American--can not go to and graduate from college, which is the litmus test for middle-class standing (Shapiro 92). Thus, both the government and pre-existing social and economic inequality as a result of the wealth gap have rendered the American Dream extinct.
While social scientists and skeptics characterize the American Dream as a myth, others believe it exists, and that anyone regardless of race, gender, or circumstance of birth has the opportunity to secure a better and more fulfilling life for themselves. The American Dream, they tout, will help America climb out of recession and eradicate the inequality lamented by those who view it as dead (King 573). A 2009 poll taken by the New York Times showed that over 70% of Americans still believed in the idea that one could be born in poverty, work hard, and eventually become rich and provide for their families. These optimists, however, believe that the nature of the American Dream has become more modest than in prior generations. Rather than aspiring to become rich, Americans strive to attain middle-class status to focus their attention on securing work and saving money (573). Optimists thus believe that despite the media spotlight on struggling workers and stories of impoverishment, as long as Americans have the opportunity to improve their lot in life, the American Dream remains alive (577). The abstract concept of the American Dream and the power latent in its promises has propelled great change and progress in America and fostered hope in the majority of Americans that life will eventually improve.
Some optimists that believe in the American Dream, however, lament that the nature of it has shifted from generation to generation. The American Dream was once imbued with the notions of freedom and equality, but some believe it has transformed into becoming associated with materialism and greed. A generation ago, Americans sought to secure a good job, invoking their rights to benefit from the free market and earn wages commensurate with their work ethic. Today, however, people strive to obtain material objects and live comfortably even if they do not merit to do so (Thomas). This mindset that elides the conservative principle of hard work results in a loss of freedom and projects American society as in a state of moral degradation. Despite the apparent deterioration of fundamental American principles as reflected by the morphing American Dream, John Nestler conveys a sense of pride in the American Dream and optimism that it will survive when he says: "...the American Dream will regain its former identity, and American will remain...admired by the world" (Nestler). He believes the principles of liberty and freedom will once again become infused in the American Dream. Although schools no longer teach students the way to achieve the American Dream, Americans can reach it if they live within their means, remain diligent in their school work, and save and invest their hard-earned money.
The American Dream has served as a beacon of hope for those impoverished or migrating here in search of a better life. For centuries parents have touted the American Dream to their children as a way to encourage them to work hard. Their hard work, in turn, would reap the financial benefits that would lead to a peaceful and stable life. However, the material reality in America seemingly debunks the myth of the American Dream. Income inequality persists and perpetuates social and economic inequality, especially amongst minorities. This inequality has corrupted American politics and ruptured the social fabric of American society. Still, many believe that the American Dream is alive but has transformed from what it used to stand for. Securing a good job and living comfortably while also taking care of and spending time with family has become the new American Dream for many. Nonetheless, the obvious wealth and income gap that has plagued social relations and led to a lower standard of living must be rectified in order to save the American Dream as an ideal all Americans could achieve.
Hasen, Richard. "Citizens United and the Illusion of Coherence." Michigan Law Review, vol. 109, no. 4, (2011), pp. 581-623.
King, Brandon. "The American Dream: Dead, Alive, or on Hold?" They Say / I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. Eds. Graff, Gerald, and Cathy Birkenstein. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010, pp. 586-603.
Krugman, Paul. "Confronting Inequality." They Say / I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. Eds. Graff, Gerald, and Cathy Birkenstein. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010, pp. 586-603.
Nestler, John E. "The American Dream." Haverford College, Philadelphia.
Shapiro, Thomas M. The Hidden Cost of Being African American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Thomas, Cal. "Is the American Dream Over?." townhall.com. 23 Nov. 2010.http://townhall.com/columnists/calthomas/2010/11/23/is_the_american_dream_over/page/full. Accessed 13 Mar. 2014.