The American Dream is at the core of how Americans think about of their country and themselves. But how real is the American Dream? Where does the idea come from? By analyzing videos from pop culture and news media, this blog post offers some answers to these big questions.
WHAT IS THE AMERICAN DREAM?
Let's start with a clear definition of the American Dream by drawing from this clip, which features a debate between Tom Horne (Arizona superintendent of public instruction) and sociologist Michael Eric Dyson. While the debate focuses on teaching alternative racial or ethnic histories in schools, Horne's comments concisely convey what constitutes the American Dream. Among other things, Horne argues "we should be teaching our kids that this is the land of opportunity, and if they work hard, they can achieve their dreams, and not teach them they're oppressed." In short, the American Dream is about having "hope for the future" and being able to realize one's hope through hard work and merit. It presumes that one's origins (e.g., class background, race, etc) do not affect where they end up in life in any significant way.
HOW REAL IS THE AMERICAN DREAM?
If the American Dream is a reality, then it must give everyone an equal shot at moving up (or down) in society. And one of the pathways that is most essential for social mobility is education. The argument goes something like this: everyone, through universal public education, has equal opportunities to succeed as long as they work hard. So our first question is: do American youth have equal opportunities in our educational system? This clip from The Oprah Show addresses this question by having students from an inner-city Chicago public school and a public suburban school trade places. The students are shocked to see the extreme inequalities in the school facilities, educational curriculum, and teacher quality--all which shape student outcomes and performance. Like academic studies on educational inequalities (e.g., Jonathan Kozol's class study on Savage Inequalities), it illustrates how students from poor neighborhoods attend poor schools and students from wealthy neighborhoods attend wealthy schools with great resources. On average, wealthy schools in the US spend 2-3 times more money per pupil than poor schools. Students in the US are not given equal opportunities in schools.
Another way to assess if the American Dream is a reality is to examine mobility patterns. If mobility really is about hard work and merit, we would expect that individuals have an equal chance at moving up and down the class hierarchy. This video from the PEW Economic Mobility Project helps us by providing visual animations that depict income mobility. It looks at how absolute mobility (when a person earns more money in inflation-adjusted dollars than their parents did at the same age) and relative mobility (a person's rank within the income distribution as a whole) work—while also highlighting how both types of movement relate to American Individualism. It shows that the US is doing well in absolute mobility, but not relative mobility. When explaining relative mobility, the video highlights “stickiness at the ends” by showing how there is a great deal of movement in the middle classes—but the poor and the wealthy at the top and bottom of the social hierarchy tend to experience little if any movement both within, and across generations. In other words, where you start can have a big impact on where you end up.
But do Americans experience more mobility than individuals in other countries? In this short news clip, journalist Fareed Zakaria summarizes some empirical evidence about social mobility in several countries. In terms of intergenerational mobility in the US, nearly 50% of men whose fathers were in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic spectrum, remained at the bottom. In comparison to Denmark and Sweden, only 25% of men remained in the bottom fifth of the spectrum. The phenomenon of "stickiness at the ends" (described above) is more likely to happen in the US. This leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that the American dream is really only alive and well in Europe.
So while mobility rates are lower in the US, and it is especially difficult to move up from the bottom, some individuals do succeed in moving up. What do their experiences tell us about the American Dream? This video from The Boston Globe tells the story of two young brothers trying to overcome difficult barriers (read associated article here). Johnny and George live in Dorchester, MA, a Boston crime and poverty "hot spot." In addition to their economic issues, they face many family challenges (e.g. their father committed suicide 3 years ago, and their mother has a disability preventing her from working outside of the home). But while people in such neighborhoods are often depicted as being hopeless, Johnny and George are very hopeful and seek a better life. They work hard to achieve grades at the top of their classes, earn their own spending money through tutoring, and have received help from a local mentor and non-profit organizations. Viewers might reflect on how Johnny and George's story reflects the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" ideology of the American Dream, but it also demonstrates that everyone needs help to do so. Therefore, it underscores that while some opportunity does exist, success cannot be understood merely through individual effort and merit. To move out of the bottom, people need a variety of supports, such as financial support (often from government programs), a quality education, and mentors.
IF THE AMERICAN DREAM IS NOT A REALITY, WHY DO SO MANY PEOPLE BELIEVE IT?
The videos above suggest a more complicated picture of the American Dream than what people tend to believe. On the one hand, some people are able to experience upward mobility. On the other hand, where you start has a powerful impact on where you end up; the number of people who move from the bottom towards the top is relatively small. And the closer you are born to the top, the more likely you are to get there (or stay there). Furthermore, when we look at many European countries, people born into the bottom of the class hierarchy there have a better chance of moving up. So, if the American Dream is largely a myth, and does not reflect reality, why do so many people believe in it?
Sociologists note that everyone has overarching frameworks for making sense of the world. These frameworks, called ideologies, are sets of ideas and beliefs that shape how we interpret reality. Ideologies are always related to power, with dominant ideologies reinforcing existing power relations. The American Dream is a particularly dominant ideology that reinforces class relations by perpetuating the belief that anyone who works hard can be economically successful (despite the overwhelming evidence of how class inequality shapes economic outcomes).
Ideologies are not necessarily connected to reality; in fact, they often are distorted conceptions of reality. This PBS NewsHour report explores everyday Americans' sense of economic inequality in the US. Drawing upon an academic study and everyday interviewers with tourists in NYC, it shows that average Americans consistently underestimate how much inequality exists in the US. In other words, their belief about American society and how it works is very different from the economic reality. Commentators in the clip partially explain this misconception by noting how we tend to experience social life in segregated, more equal communities, and base our perceptions on those experiences; we miss the inequality in broader society. Note that the clip also features research showing that overall, Americans (both Democrats and Republicans) want more economic equality.
But the ideology of the American Dream is also explicitly reproduced throughout media and popular culture. For example, this car commercial illustrates this ideology with a discussion of the excellence that has come out American garages: "The Wright brothers started in a garage, Amazon started in a garage, Hewlett Packard started in a garage ... the Ramones started in a garage. My point? You never know what kind of greatness can come out of an American garage." It suggests that anyone can do great things from humble beginnings. The emphasis on "American" suggests that this idea is a uniquely American characteristic, thereby reinforcing viewers' (misguided) sense of the American Dream as reality. Note that the first video above also shows how our key institutions (e.g. American education system) reinforce this ideology.
GEORGE CARLIN: THE IDEOLOGY OF THE AMERICAN DREAM IS ABOUT POWER
Finally, it is no coincidence that the myth of the American Dream is reproduced throughout our media and our institutions. George Carlin explains this relationship in this stand-up routine (In typical George Carlin style, it is full of expletives and vulgar sexual metaphors). He begins by emphasizing the gap between "the owners of this country" and the rest of us. Carlin states that the owners control the politicians by lobbying to get what they want, but they also control people through education and media. They keep the educational system just good enough to educate people to be obedient workers but keep it poor enough so that it does not teach people enough to be able to think for themselves. They use the media to tell people what to believe, what to buy, and what to think. Because people can vote, they suffer the illusion that they have "freedom of choice." Suffering from false consciousness, they support ideas that are against their own self interests; for example they accept the reduced pay, fewer benefits, and less social programs that the owners claim are in their interests. All the while, they remain powerless to the owners--i.e., wealthy individuals who have an interest in reproducing the ideology of the American Dream because it helps to legitimate their position within society. The clip ends with the statement: "it's called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it."