Op Ed – The American Dream: Who is Accountable?

Ed Burghard“The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, 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.”

― James Truslow AdamsThe Epic of America

By Edward Burghard

Recently, a few friends have sent me emails that have shared perspective that made me think even more deeply about Brand America’s promise (the American Dream).  All three have political overtones, so I will only share links to them in case you have a desire to validate the reference.

The first was a hoax that is making its rounds on the internet entitled “Like It, Or Leave It”.  This email incorrectly attributes a speech about Australia to a former prime minister.  The primary message is that immigrants must adapt to Brand Australia’s culture rather than the culture change to embrace immigrants.  According to Snopes.com, the speech is actually an Austrailianized version of an opinion piece authored by an American who was actually referring to the United States.

The second shared an opinion piece authored by Bob Lonsberry entitled “Two Americas”.  In his (highly partisan) piece, Bob raises the question of whether the government or the individual is responsible for ensuring creation of personal wealth.  He makes the point choices have consequences and Americans are free to make individual choices that impact the course their lives will take.

The third was a 1907 speech made by President Roosevelt in which he advocates “We should insist that if the immigrant who come here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us … There can be no divided allegiance here.  Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn’t an American at all.”

These three emails gave me cause to pause and revisit the Xavier University research on the American Dream.  I strongly encourage you to read Michael Ford’s “Five Myths About The American Dream” published by the Washington Post for a quick overview of the University’s insights.  Michael (b-1948, d-2013) was the founding director of the Xavier University Center for the Study of the American Dream.

According to the University, and I agree, a reasonable articulation of the American Dream is James Truslow Adam’s definition – “the dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.”  I reframe the concept in the context of place branding and characterize the American Dream as Brand America’s Promise, and advocate that elected officials at all government levels should adopt the strategic aspiration of “better enabling residents to achieve their American Dream” to guide tactical choices on asset creation, infrastructure investment and public policy.

But what are the drivers of the American Dream?

Xavier University has created the American Dream Composite Index™ powered by dunnhumby to answer that question.  It is the first statistically validated measure of the American Dream in its entirety.  The study defines 35 drivers of the American Dream.  It is important to note that each of the drivers uniquely contributes to an individual’s ability to realize their American Dream.  On a general basis (e.g. when looking at a community or state), the drivers are equal in their impact.  However, on an individual resident basis everybody has their own definition of the American Dream and will typically place a greater emphasis on one or more of the drivers.

  • 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
  • Destinations in Life – ability to choose destinations (i.e. job, housing, travel, etc.)
  • Job Benefits – satisfaction with job benefits and security
  • Health Care – ability to access and afford good health care
  • Freedom of Choice – ability to choose what one wants in life
  • Generational Progress – state of one’s life relative to parents
  • Home Ownership – desire and ability to own a home
  • Job Environment – satisfaction with work environment
  • 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 person
  • 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 Activities – ability to engage in leisure activities
  • Social Status – belief that one is well-regulated 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
  • Trust in Government – satisfaction with government’s fairness and trustworthiness
  • Trust in Business – satisfaction with businesses’ fairness and trustworthiness
  • Just Society – extent to which society is fair and moral
  • Trust in People – satisfaction with people’s fairness and trustworthiness
  • Education Quality – extent to which schools are good and promote originality
  • Safety in Travel – extent to which schools are good and promote originality
  • Safety in Community – extent of safety where one lives
  • Civic Participation – extent of participation 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 different social ideas (i.e. sexual orientation, religion, etc.)
  • Political Freedom – satisfaction with the ability to vote freely and make political choices
  • Melting Pot: Diversity – extent of exposure to diverse cultural experiences
  • Environment – extent of pollution in the air, food, water and land that one encounters on a regular basis

Resident perception on how well these drivers are being achieved determines the degree to which their American Dream is being enabled.  All strategic choices made by local elected officials and private sector leaders should be made with the overarching aspiration of better enabling residents to achieve their American Dream.  Comparing resident dimension scores versus a relevant cohort of other locations and/or the national average helps identify both points of positive difference (advantages) and negative differences (disadvantages) to focus on as input for the community strategic planning process.

My Personal Conclusion

I have a lot of confidence in the Xavier University research, and am continuing to explore the application of the data in economic development as input to the strategic planning design process.  I think the University has indeed quantified the Dream in a way that is actionable at both the community (MSA) and state level.

Here is what I believe based on my reading and personal contemplation:

  1. The American Dream is a Promise.
  2. Elected Officials and local leaders have a responsibility to ensure that a “richer and fuller life for every man, with an opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement” is an authentic promise.
  3. Residents have a responsibility to earn the American Dream.  I do not believe the Promise should be considered a birthright or a guarantee that every resident will enjoy the same (or even similar) quality of life.

I sense lately the need to earn the American Dream has somehow been lost in the discussion about income inequality and the decline of the middle class in America.  It is time we reemphasize that our Nation’s Promise requires individual effort to be realized.  Being an American is about respecting and protecting the right of all residents to earn their American Dream based on their ability and accomplishment.  We need to ensure access to opportunity, but recognize that for any individual the degree of success is commensurate with the effort invested to achieve it.  And, hopefully it goes without saying,  we need to protect those citizens who genuinely lack the physical or mental ability to achieve a reasonable quality of life.


I’d like to know your thoughts on the authenticity of the American Dream.  Do you agree that there appears to be a difference of opinion in the role of individuals versus the government in achieving the American Dream?  Do you feel elected officials are guided by the aspiration of “better enabling residents to achieve their American Dream”?  Should they be?

Leave a comment with your thoughts.

What You Need To Know About The American Dream

Media Coverage

Fox Business 

Wall Street Journal


Regional Business Talk Interview – Dr. Greg Smith

Regional Business Talk Interview 2012 – Ed Burghard

Regional Business Talk Interview 2014 – Ed Burghard

Business Xpansion Magazine

American Dream Case Study Series

Cincinnati versus Ohio and Nation

Indiana versus Michigan

Florida versus North Carolina

New York versus New Jersey

California versus Texas

Pennsylvania versus New York

North Carolina versus Texas

Ohio versus Michigan

How Easy Is It To Achieve The American Dream In Your State?

To view the complete set of State rankings based on the ADCI and five explanatory sub-indexes, download the complimentary 2012 American Dream State Ranking Report.

Download American Dream Report



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