What Is This American Dream Anyway?

October 10, 2011

Recent events have got me thinking about the American Dream.

Here in our nation’s capital, a conference brought together a large group of well-known progressives under the rubric “Take Back the American Dream.”

The plan, we’re told, was to “channel … grassroots energy into an unstoppable force” that would counter corporate and Tea Party threats to “the fundamental pillars of middle class prosperity.”

One of the two sponsoring organizations was the newly-formed Rebuild the Dream — a nonprofit that “tells the story of, and acts as a hub for the emerging American Dream Movement.”

It’s got a contract that’s clearly a counterpoint to the Republicans’ Contract With America and the update Pledge version they issued last year.

Ten steps to get our economy back on track — mostly policy positions that progressive organizations have argued for at least since the last Presidential election.

It’s the preamble, however, that tells us what the American Dream means to the organization and the more than 306,000 people who’ve signed on to the contract.

“Liberty and justice … for all,” it says. “Americans who are willing to work hard and play by the rules should be able to find a decent job, get a good home in a strong community, retire with dignity, and give their kids a better life.”

We see similar sentiments in the We Are the 99 Percent stories brought to us, we’re told, by “the people who occupy wall street.”

As Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein observes, these generally aren’t rants against the system, anarchist manifestos or calls for revolution, though some of the movers and shakers envision the Wall Street occupation as a seedbed for radical change of some sort.

They’re “small stories of people who played by the rules … and now have nothing to show for it” — or “worse … tens of thousands of debt.”

Here again the notion of playing by the rules and the expected payoff.

The very fact there are so many stories tells us something about the distress that millions of Americans are feeling.

The home page summarizes many of their grievances. “We are getting kicked out of our homes … forced to choose between groceries and rent … denied quality medical care … forced to work long hours for little pay and no rights, if we are working at all.”

Add to these the many references to large debts, mostly for college loans. These tell us something about the age group most actively engaged in the Occupy Wall Street movement, but also why.

The writers feel betrayed by the rules.

Get a good education and you’re on your way to a secure middle-class life. Who didn’t hear this during their growing-up years?

But the Heldrich Center reports that only 56% of those who got their degrees last year were employed in spring 2011. Stories of those who’re tending bar, pumping gas or flipping burgers at McDonald’s are unfortunately commonplace.

Many more figures on the American Dream blog, which proclaims that “millions of young Americans want what was promised to them. They want good jobs that will enable them to enjoy the ‘American Dream.'” And they’re “mad as hell.”

When the term “American Dream” was coined, in 1931, it referred mainly to equality of opportunity.

“It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely,” wrote James Truslow Adams, “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.”

Rebuild the American Dream’s contract reflects this vision in its reference to “liberty and justice.” But — and I think this is characteristic of the common understanding now — “justice” means reaping the economic rewards of “playing by the rules.”

The problems that have brought the American Dream to the fore are, in many cases, recession-related.

But they seem to have convinced many people that something is fundamentally wrong with our system — something that can’t be cured just by creating more jobs and getting the rich to pay their fair share.

And indeed, something is fundamentally wrong. But it’s something — or rather, some things — that have been wrong for longer than the American Dream has been part of our language.

There have always been people who worked hard, stayed out of trouble, honored their debts, scrimped and saved as best they could and yet never got anything like the payoffs that the current American Dream promises.

No “pillars of middle class prosperity for them.”

I would hope that any reforms that emerge from the groundswell of anger and frustration we’re witnessing would bring the American Dream within the reach of these people too.


Traditional Values Get New Packaging

October 15, 2009

The launch issue of National Affairs includes a lengthy and thought-provoking article by Ron Haskins, co-director of the Brooking Institution’s Center on Children and Families.

Basically, Haskins seeks to shift the debate on anti-poverty policies from income inequality to upward mobility. After all, he says, the American dream isn’t economic equality. It’s the chance to get ahead.

The first part of the article marshals economic studies to show that income inequality in the U.S. isn’t really as great as it’s commonly said to be–or increasing as much as alleged.

But this effort to correct the inequality story is just a preamble to the heart of the argument. Haskins dives into that with an account of what he and Brookings colleagues found when they analyzed long-term data on economic mobility together with data on employment, family composition, education and other personal characteristics.

These, he says, are what really matter because the reasons people are poor “have to do not only with economics but also with culture, history, and especially individual behavior and personal choices.”

Looking at the impacts of getting a four-year college degree, he concludes that mobility is “alive and well in America”–though not what it could be, given what we see in other industrialized countries, or what it should be, given the “enormous” investments in anti-poverty programs.

What we need, he says, is more public policies, like student financial aid, that support personal effort. But that’s only part of the agenda. Haskins and his colleagues recommend:

  • Expanding the “serious” work requirements and the work supports in TANF to include beneficiaries of the food stamp program and subsidized housing–this because they view welfare reform as a great success.
  • Expanding programs that focus on the early growth and development of poor children.
  • Promoting marriage and two-parent families because “the growth of female-headed families is like a giant poverty-generating machine.”

Much of this makes me very uncomfortable. No doubt that our traditional cultural values–education, hard work, marriage and responsible child-rearing–are correlated to prosperity. No doubt that personal responsibility–or lack of same–helps determine what income bracket we’re in. And no doubt whatever that expanding supports for low-wage workers and helping poor children get a good start in life are important and worthwhile.

But my sense is that Haskins’s agenda is about half a step away from blaming poor people for their situation–and maybe not even half a step away from a very rigid and conservative view of what a family should be.

And is economic mobility–the chance to move up (and down) the income scale–really the be all and the end all anyway? My dream for America is different.