One of the paradoxes of this hyper-polarized, hyper-anxious moment in American history is the massive gap between how people feel about their own lives (largely positive) and how they feel about the country’s overall direction (largely negative).
Back in January, for example, 87 percent of U.S. adults told Gallup they were satisfied with the way things were going in their personal life, which was the highest level of satisfaction recorded since December 2003.
Yet, for many years now, sizable majorities of Americans have said they think the country as a whole is on the wrong track.
There are, of course, myriad reasons to be pessimistic about America’s future. We are grappling with the worst drug-overdose epidemic in our history. Large numbers of prime-working-age men have dropped out of the labor force. Our economy is increasingly unfriendly to those with less education and fewer skills. Per-capita GDP growth has been painfully slow for pretty much the entire twenty-first century. Nonmarital births and family breakdown have fueled social pathologies and exacerbated inequality. Many of our biggest cities have recently witnessed a sharp uptick in violent crime. Social trust and cultural cohesion have both declined. In the political sphere, “negative partisanship” has greatly intensified.
Given this litany of troubles, the results of a new Pew Research Center survey seem all the more remarkable. Pew reports that the overwhelming majority of U.S. adults believe their family either has already achieved the American Dream (36 percent) or is on the way to achieving it (46 percent), compared with only 17 percent who believe the American Dream is out of reach.
“Notably,” Pew adds, “there are no significant racial or ethnic differences in the shares who say the American dream is out of reach for their families.”
How do people define “the American Dream”? According to the Pew survey, most consider it essential to have “freedom of choice in how to live” (77 percent), to have a good family life (70 percent), and to retire comfortably (60 percent). And while 43 percent say it is essential to own a home or have a successful career, only 11 percent say it is essential to become wealthy. In fact, 40 percent of adults say that becoming wealthy is not important to their conception of the American Dream.
All of which should make us feel a bit more optimistic about where America stands today and where it is likely headed in the years to come. If the American Dream really were “dead”—as Donald Trump declared in his June 2015 presidential announcement speech, and as many other politicians and pundits have suggested—there’s no way that 82 percent of U.S. adults would’ve told Pew that their family was on course to achieve it or had already done so.
Skeptics might point to a high-profile 2016 study by economists affiliated with the Equality of Opportunity Project (EOP), which found that only 50 percent of U.S. children born in 1984 had larger household incomes than their parents did at age thirty, compared with 92 percent of children born in 1940. Surely this confirms that the American Dream is—as the title of the study put it—“fading”?
Perhaps. But other researchers have demonstrated that long-term income trends are highly sensitive to inflation measures. Just last month, for example, economists Pete Klenow of Stanford and Huiyu Li of the San Francisco Fed pointed out that, if we use a more accurate measure of inflation than the one used by the EOP study, we get a “meaningful” increase in the proportion of children from the 1984 generation who are now earning more than their parents.
We also have to remember that, as economic-mobility expert Scott Winship has noted, “30-year-olds in 1970 were born towards the end of the Great Depression. Exceeding the income of their parents was relatively easy compared with today. Few of today’s 30-year-olds would trade the higher absolute mobility their 1970 counterparts enjoyed for contemporary living standards.”
Either way, the idea of “the American Dream” was never exclusively, or even primarily, about making more money than your parents.
The term traces back to a 1931 book by businessman-turned-historian James Truslow Adams. “It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely,” Adams wrote in The Epic of America, “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.”
Put another way, the American Dream is mainly about freedom, opportunity, pursuit, and creation. As David Kamp argued in a 2009 Vanity Fair essay, “The American Dream should be embraced as the unique sense of possibility that this country gives its citizens—the decent chance, as Moss Hart would say, to scale the walls and achieve what you wish.”
In that sense, the American Dream is alive even in many poor states, hardscrabble cities, and underprivileged communities.
It is alive for children in Indianapolis, where 20 percent of public-school students now attend “innovation schools” managed by charter organizations and nonprofit groups. (In 2017, writes education journalist Dylan Peers McCoy, innovation schools posted some of the city’s “biggest gains in passing rates” on standardized tests for grades 3–8.)
It is alive for students in Buffalo, where the nonprofit group Say Yes to Education has provided low-income families with a wide range of support services and thousands of college scholarships, thereby helping to boost the city’s high-school graduation rate.
It is alive for working-class teenagers in West Virginia, which has become a national leader in vocational training. (The share of West Virginia high-school seniors completing some kind of “technical course of study” increased from 18 percent in 2010 to 37 percent in 2016, according to the New York Times.)
It is alive for South Carolinians participating in their state’s vaunted Apprenticeship Carolina program—run by the SC Technical College System—which has served around 27,000 apprentices since launching in 2007.
And it is certainly alive for residents of Pittsburgh, a city once synonymous with Rust Belt decline, which is now experiencing a tech boom and being hailed as one of the best cities in America for millennials.
To be sure, none of this diminishes the challenges facing poor, working-class, and middle-class families across the country. But we should resist undue fatalism and despair. To adapt Mark Twain, the death of the American Dream has been greatly exaggerated.