The Myth of the American Dream

I try not to be too pessimistic in this blog. No one likes to read a bunch of downer ideas. There’s a reason everyone hated the Debbie Downer character on Saturday Night Live. I’m an optimistic person by nature, so most of the time it’s easy to write optimistically. Even when I’m writing about a discouraging or negative topic, I try to insert some optimism.

However, when I read the topic for tonight’s Blogapalooz-hour, the monthly communal writing exercise in which ChicagoNow’s bloggers are given a topic and challenged to write a post in one hour, I knew immediately that I’d write a downer.

The topic: “Write about something you believed as a child or in your youth that turned out not to be true.”

Unless I decide to write about how I thought for sure that I’d be kidnapped as a kid, but then never got kidnapped, this one’s likely to be a downer.

But, unfortunately, I knew right away what I’d write about, and despite considering other topics, nothing else is calling my name.

So, I have no choice but to write about the virtual myth of the American dream.

I don’t know where I first learned about the American dream, this idea that if someone just worked hard enough that they could make something of themselves and improve their lot in life, and move up the income scale. It’s so ingrained in American culture that I suspect by the time most kids are done with elementary school they’re familiar with the concept.

Unfortunately, for most people, it’s just not true.

Perhaps this is where I inject some optimism, because there are examples of people who have started from nothing, in very difficult circumstances, and succeeded. However, those people are the exceptions. They’re outliers.

I’m not one to quote song lyrics, but a line from the song What It’s Like by Everlast hits the nail on the head: “You know where it ends, yo, it usually depends on where you start.”

Most people in the United States will end up in the same economic class in which they began. Among other advanced nations, only in Peru and United Kingdom is a child more likely than in the United States to remain in the class into which they were born. Upward mobility is more likely in Pakistan, France, Canada, Japan and Denmark.

This wasn’t always the case. If the American dream never existed then we wouldn’t have seen the creation, and then the growth, of the middle class in the past hundred years. All along we’ve accepted some income inequality because we held on to the idea that with hard work and perseverance that the poorest child can grow and work to become rich.

But in recent decades education has become more important to land gainful, lucrative employment. And it only makes sense that the income inequality we’ve accepted contributes to inequality in education. If you doubt this is true, then why is housing usually more expensive in communities with “good” school districts? And why are the communities with the cheapest housing also the places where we find the “worst” schools?

However, it’s not just education.

People in the lower income brackets tend to have higher rates of single-parent homes and teenage pregnancy, and all of the accompanying stresses. It’s difficult for a parent to help a child learn the skills required to improve their lives if the parent has more immediate concerns, like working enough hours to put food on the table.

And changes in government policy that are heavily influenced by the myth of the American dream only help to make that dream even harder to achieve. If we believe that when someone “makes it” they did so by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, and just working hard, then it’s easier to justify economic policies that favor the rich. They earned it after all.

Never mind the innumerable people that helped them along the way, or the advantages they received due to other social policies, or the fact that they just started from a higher class to begin with.

In the past thirty years, as we’ve transitioned into more conservative economic policies, wages have stagnated, with real wages barely changed in 50 years. CEO pay used to be 30 times more than the average worker’s income. Now it’s 300 times more.

Income inequality, and the lack of laws and economic policy to help reduce it, helps to keep the American dream out of reach for most people. And until Americans realize that the dream is a myth, and demand changes to help lessen income inequality, that myth will continue.

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