“The American Dream is inextricably bound to America’s ideals of freedom, equality, justice, and opportunity for all Americans. … The American Dream is part of our soul. Without it, America will lose its vitality.”
attributed to Roger Fortin (professor Xavier University)
I have been working for a number of years to increase awareness of Xavier University’s seminal research into the American Dream and the important role their findings should play in informing public policy and programming decisions. This research is the first (and to my knowledge only) validated quantitative look at what the American Dream really is. The data help identify perceived barriers to achieving the American Dream and can be used by elected officials to conduct strategic gap analysis for the purpose of preferentially investing tax payer dollars for reducing or eliminating those barriers. Unfortunately, awareness of this research among elected officials is low.
As background, Michael Ford (founding Director, Center for the Study of the American Dream at Xavier University in Cincinnati) initiated a disciplined look at what the American Dream actually is and why it is important to our Nation. The exploration discovered a number of widely held misperceptions on the definition of the American Dream. In his book (The American Dream … or Whats’ a Heaven For?), Michael debunked 5 specific myths about the American Dream.
What the American Dream is Not
Myth #1 – The American Dream is about getting rich. Based on the Center’s quantitative research, it turns out, only 6% of Americans actually rank wealth as a top version of the American Dream. In fact, inherited wealth is not held in high regard by most Americans. When asked how respondents self categorize their relative wealth, most said they were middle class even though arithmetically that is not possible. This association of the American Dream with wealth is often reinforced by studies designed with the mythology in mind. According to Michael, Pew Research has concluded the American Dream is the ideal that all Americans have equality of opportunity regardless of their economic status at birth. But, that is the crux of the Pew study and not the crux of the American Dream. Americans understand and accept, we do not have the opportunity to choose our talents any more than we have the opportunity to choose our parents. We only have the opportunity to maximally develop the God given skills we were born with. For some (e.g. professional athletes), those talents will result in greater wealth than others.
Myth #2 – Home ownership is the American Dream. This is a paradigm that took hold based on the efforts of the government, real estate industry, construction companies and lending institutions. It is a myth that continues to dominate in the media. But, it is actually a concept that accelerated in popularity post WWII as a way to create a suburban real estate market which was a key driver of GDP expansion. The Center’s research indicates less than 10% of respondents rank home ownership as their first or second definition of the American Dream. The bottom line is that homeownership is actually more important to special interests than it is to Americans. Millennials who carry high student loan debt are illustrating home ownership is actually a finical decision that has little to nothing to do with the full meaning of the American Dream.
Myth #3 – The American Dream is American and not for Immigrants. In reality, perception and appreciation of the American Dream is typically greater among those who are new to America. And most Americans believe legal immigration is important to sustaining the American Dream. Michael notes “America needs strivers … the day people stop wanting to come here to make a better life, is the day the American Dream is economic toast.”
Myth #4 – China’s economic success threatens the American Dream. Economic growth requires innovation, and innovation requires educated people. The proven path to economic growth remains innovative developments in technology. The United States has hooked its wagon to a future unimagined. China is increasingly prosperous and economically influential. But, its rigid command control government planning structure and socialistic ideals will remain stumbling blocks to innovation. Unless the United States dramatically shifts focus from encouraging innovation to over control by regulation, the future for the American Dream remains bright.
Myth #5 – Political Gridlock and Mean Spirited Politics are Killing The American Dream. I should note Michael’s book was published in 2015. Consequently, it isn’t a direct commentary on the current Administration. None-the-less, I believe his point remains relevant. He points out there is a stunning lack of confidence in U.S. institutions (both public and private). Michael points out that technology carries unintended consequences. We are losing the context of interpersonal relationships and impersonal electronic communication is rapidly growing as a key source of information. Political compromise, cooperation and focus on getting things done is no longer rewarded and replaced with politics of the lowest common denominator. But, Michael points out that political name calling, self interest and vitriolic attacks have always been part of American politics. r
As an example of early racism, in the 1800 Presidential election John Adams team called then VP Jefferson a “mean-spirited, low lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” You can debate if things are worse today; but, the fact is the American Dream has withstood the rancor of elected officials and continues to be unaffected by their public theatrics.
Even though Michael Ford did not call them out specifically, there are no doubt more mythologies associated with the American Dream. That is why the quantitative and statistically validated research by Xavier University into what the American Dream is and the publicly perceived roadblocks to achieving it is so important to be aware of and understand.
It is easy for me to project something I believe passionately in onto the general public. That is why I learned early to collect data to confirm or reject any of my personal hypotheses. In this case I hypothesized the public wants elected officials to be aware of what the American Dream is and to use that insight in decision making. To check the validity of that hypothesis I fielded a questionnaire using Survey Monkey. In the spirit of full disclosure, I only have a complimentary account so am limited to a total of 100 respondents.
Here are the results of the survey.
Question #1 – How important do you believe it is for elected officials to understand the American Dream? On a scale of 0 to 100, the average score was 84.
Question #2 – Should elected officials be focused on legislation that will make it easier for you to achieve your American Dream? 84% of respondents said yes, 8% said no and the balance were unsure.
Question #3 – How important do you believe it is for elected officials to get an annual report informing them the degree to which constituents feel they are achieving their American Dream? On a scale of 0 to 100, the average score was 80.
Question #4 – How importunities it to measure the annual progress elected officials make in helping constituents achieve their American Dream? On a scale of 0 to 100, the average score was 78.
Question #5 – Do you believe having an annual quantitative measure of progress made in helping constituents better achieve their American Dream is a useful way to hold elected officials accountable to “We the People”? 72% of respondents said yes, 16% said no and the balance were unsure.
I think the data overwhelmingly suggest Americans want elected officials focused on and held accountable for better enabling personal achievement of the American Dream. The Xavier University research provides a way to do so at the state and major MSA level. Comparisons of progress over time and relative progress versus national results (or versus relevant competitive locations) are possible. Elected officials can get a good understanding of how their constituents feel and where they perceive impediments to achieving the American Dream that could potentially be addressed through public policy or program funding decisions.
The barrier to actual implementation is elected officials lacking awareness of the Xavier University research. I have been writing Congress members and Senators to try and raise awareness, but have candidly had limited success. My hope is you might join me by trying to make your elected officials aware. The easiest way is to forward them the link to the 2018 American Dream States and Cities report published by Site Selection Magazine – “Where Dreamers Become Doers”. Ask them to read the article and request local data. If we all pitch in, the voice of the people might be heard and elected officials will get access to an important tool to aid in their efforts to legislate.
I look forward to your help and thank you in advance.