Civic Illiteracy Threatens The America Dream

The American Dream is personal, not public or institutional, in its execution.

Attributed to Michael F. Ford

It is frustrating to read articles in which the author misrepresents the American Dream.  It is equally frustrating to listen to politicians who refer to the American Dream in speeches, but have no clue what it really is.  This civic illiteracy leads to a focus on creating public policies and programs that create rather than remove barriers to achieving the American Dream.  In light of Xavier University’s research into the American Dream (ADCI – American Dream Composite Index study), it is inexcusable that the current level of civic illiteracy among the Media and elected officials continues to exist.

To help address the situation, here is an overview of the ADCI study.  None of the findings should surprise you, other than the degree to which they confirm your gut feeling.  I encourage you to read the rest of this post.  If you live in Pennsylvania, pay close attention to the case study.  It gives you insight into what Pennsylvanians perceive as their biggest hurdles to achieving the American Dream.

What Are The ADCI Sub-Indexes And Dimensions?

In the design phase, the researchers at Xavier University used confirmatory factor analysis to confirm the underlying structure of the data. This led to the validation of 5 over-arching themes (or sub-indexes) within the American Dream and the statistical association of each dimension to a single sub-index.

American Dream Economic Sub-Index (measure’s one’s satisfaction with respect to their finances, job, home ownership and healthcare)

  • Financial Security – satisfaction with financial situation
  • Material Prosperity – ability to meet expenses and afford desired material possessions
  • Access to Education – ability to access a quality and affordable education
  • Destination in Life – ability to choose destinations (i.e. job, housing, travel, etc.)
  • Job Benefits – satisfaction with job benefits and security
  • Freedom of Choice – ability to choose what one wants in life
  • Health Care – ability to access and afford good health care
  • Generational Progress – state of one’s life relative to his/her parents
  • Home Ownership – desire and ability to own a home
  • Job Environment – satisfaction with work environment

American Dream Well-Being Sub-Index (measures the extent of one’s contentment, health and prosperity in life

  • Family Support – availability of help and emotional support from one’s family
  • Support of Friends – availability of emotional and tangible help from friends
  • Support of Someone Special – availability of care and support from a certain special friend
  • Happiness – satisfaction and contentment with one’s life
  • Freedom of Expression – ability to express oneself freely without repercussion
  • Fruits of My Labor – extent to which one is rewarded fairly for efforts in life
  • Entrepreneurial Spirit – interest in the pursuit of new ideas and progress in life
  • Leisure Activity – ability to engage in leisure activities
  • Social Status – belief that one is well-regarded by others
  • Personal Health – satisfaction with physical and mental health
  • Satisfaction with Residence – satisfaction with where one lives
  • Optimism – expectation of good things for oneself in life

American Dream Societal Sub-Index (measures the extent to which the government, businesses, and people are fair and trustworthy

  • Trust in Government – satisfaction with government’s fairness and trustworthiness
  • Trust in Business – satisfaction with business’s fairness and trustworthiness
  • Trust in People – satisfaction with people’s fairness and trustworthiness
  • Just Society = extent to which society is fair and moral
  • Education Quality – extent to which schools are good and promote originality
  • Safety in Travel – extent to which one is safe when travelling
  • Safety in Community – extent of safety where one lives
  • Civic Participation – extent of participation in one’s community

American Dream Diversity Sub-Index (measure the attitudes toward the assimilation in one’s community)

  • Melting Pot Neighborhood – acceptance of diversity in one’s neighborhood
  • Melting Pot Personal and Social Identity – acceptance of different personal and social ideates (i.e. sexual orientation and religious practices)
  • Melting Pot Diversity – extent of exposure to diverse cultural experiences
  • Political Freedom – satisfaction with the ability to vote freely and make political choices

American Dream Environment Sub-Index (measures the perceived extent of pollution in the air, food, water and land that one encounters on a regular basis)

  • Environment – satisfaction with the cleanliness of the environment where one lives, works and plays

When you talk about the American Dream, it is important you recognize it actually refers to the full set of 35 dimensions. When the Media focuses on a narrow aspect like “upward mobility” or “home ownership”, the story does not describe the American Dream in its entirety. That is why articles with headlines claiming the American Dream is dead are incorrect.

It is also important to appreciate the ADCI data represent resident sentiment. That means the data represent actual resident perception, not the perception of outsiders. When looking at the ADCI score on a state or MSA basis, the way to interpret it is that residents of this location believe they are achieving XX% of their American Dream.

For elected officials and economic development professionals, the real learning comes from comparing the sentiment of residents in their location versus national average and/or the residents of locations competing for talent or capital attraction. Completing a Gap Analysis that compares dimension scores is the best way to do this. After identifying the greatest positive (competitive advantages) and negative (competitive disadvantages) gaps, the question – “Is the gap a matter of resident perception or reality?” must then be answered. This step is critically important to help decide if the right action is resident education or location improvement.

If the gap is real (not just perceived), choices made on asset creation, infrastructure investment, public policies and programs at the national, state and local level can impact resident’s ability to achieve their American Dream. It is important in the strategic planning process, to prioritize gaps based on an objective assessment of the a) potential enabling impact and b) probability of success. Many of the actions required to close a given gap may be out of practical reach because of lack of budget or lack of political will. Therefore, local action plans should focus on making investments where actual progress can be made. By doing so, residents will benefit from a continual improvement in their ability to achieve the American Dream. Efforts against initiatives requiring more taxpayer dollars than the budget can support or more political alignment than exists should remain in the staging phase until adequate resources to ensure a reasonable probability of success are in put place.

Case Study – Pennsylvania versus Michigan

This case study is intended only to illustrate how the data can be used to help inform strategic planning. Competitive states can be compared to identify actionable gaps. Likewise, competitive MSAs can also be compared against each other.

In this case, the data is presented as though Governor Tom Wolf asked the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development to help his leadership team better understand 1) the degree to which Pennsylvanians believe they are achieving the American Dream and 2) opportunities for improving performance versus Michigan (a state Pennsylvania frequently competes with for both talent and capital attraction/retention). Identified points of positive and negative differences will be discussed in staff strategy meetings will the ultimate goal of informing a specific action plan for the Governor’s review.

Of course, while these data are real, to be clear this is only a hypothetical case.   However, it is the kind of analysis leaders of every state and MSA would find beneficial in helping create strategies to better enable residents to achieve their American Dream.

Note, the data are evaluated as comparative indexes to make the differences easier to identify and prioritize. An index of 98  means the dimension score for Pennsylvania residents is 2% lower than the national average. It is important to note while a difference of 2% may not seem like a big gap, dimensions in the overall data set tend to differ by 10% at the most. Consequently a 2% variance is meaningful. Think of it this way, indexes below 100 suggest Pennsylvania may be at a competitive disadvantage on the specific dimension versus Michigan.   Indexes greater than 100 could suggest a competitive advantage. In either case, the appropriate step would be to conduct secondary research to better understand the key drivers of that difference as part of a robust place branding analysis.

Looking at the comparative indexes, the Department of Community and Economic Development Team notice Pennsylvanians feel differently than the Nation and Michigan residents on a number of dimensions.   In this illustrative case study, the team decides to focus on the biggest differences versus Michigan.  They are the dimension scores of “Trust in Business” (index 94) and “Education Quality” (index 95).

The next step in the process is for the Team to determine if resident perception is based in reality or on misperception. Typically, the determination is made by conducting secondary research to better understand the drivers of lower scores. Essentially, the research study is designed to answer the question – “Why do Pennsylvanians feel less positive about these dimensions?”. For perspective, almost any credible market research firm can design and execute a study to provide the needed insight.

However, absent the secondary research, it is possible to gain some insight by simply conducting an Internet search. Since the data set represents calendar year 2014 through 2016, as a start the Team needs to discover what might have been occurring over those three years. In the case of Pennsylvania, there has been a number of high profile state government scandals reported in the media that could potentially impact resident trust in government.   For example, a 2014 study published by the American Society for Public Administration ( ) ranked Pennsylvania among the top five most corrupt states.   In 2016 there was a scandal involving exchange of sexually explicit images and other offensive material among judges, prosecutors and other top state officials ( ). And US Congressman Chaka Fattah was convicted on 22 counts of racketeering and bribery charges ( Consequently, it isn’t hard to hypothesize the comparatively low rating from Pennsylvanians for the dimension “Trust in Government” might have been influenced by these (and potentially other media covered scandals).

Online research can also be used to better understand Pennsylvanians low score on the dimension “Trust in Business”. It should be no news that both the coal and natural gas industries have large footprints in the state and have come under public fire. The anti-fracking movement made the legal cases of families in Dimock, Pennsylvania the center of a public relations effort to support the position that fracking will destroy the environment. The problems in Dimock took on national prominence when Josh Fox featured it in the anti-fracking movie Gasland. The issues regarding the environmental impact of strip mining and mountain top removal have been hotly contested for years. Despite a 2010 release date, this movie had ongoing coverage over the 2014 – 2015 period (particularly in social media). Also in 2016, Pennsylvania was reported to invest $30 million in federal funding to help clean up scarred land and tainted water in 14 abandoned coal sites. To be clear, the Energy industry is not the only industry in Pennsylvania with a public perception of placing profit over what is good for residents. But, it is a good example of the type of state specific issue that might help explain why Pennsylvanians rate the dimension of “Trust in Business” lower than Michigan residents.

Resident perception of “Education Quality” is harder to understand. WalletHub 2017 Report ranks Pennsylvania’s school system #16 and Michigan’s #32. Education Week’s Quality Counts 2016 Report awards Pennsylvania a B- grade and Michigan a C-. When secondary data are inconsistent with resident perception (as in this case), it suggests the issue may be based on misperception. The best action plan could be as simple as a public relations initiative to inform residents on the national data suggesting Pennsylvania schools are actually high quality.

Just to reprise the point – this case study is intended only to illustrate how the data can be used to help inform strategic planning. The data are real, but the analysis is superficial.  A far more thoughtful and thorough analysis to understand why Pennsylvania residents feel the way they do would be warranted before an effective action planning process would be undertaken. Hopefully though, the case gets you thinking about how focusing on better enabling the American Dream raises important strategic questions that should be considered in developing a forward looking brand development plan.

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