Fundamentally, the American Dream is about hope – the hope that every individual of whatever status has the chance to be all that he or she can be.
Dr. Greg Smith
James Truslow Adams, in his book The Epic of America (written in 1931) described the American Dream as “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”. This is the American Dream envisioned by our founding fathers and memorialized in the United States Declaration of Independence – “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is the basis for American exceptionalism.
Over the years, the American Dream has been thought of a synonymous with owning your own home, getting an education, or having a good paying job. However, these one-dimensional descriptions of the American Dream popularized by the media have only confused rather than clarify the meaning of the American Dream. In fact, you could probably make a rather convincing argument they have served to both trivialize and materialize the public’s understanding of the American Dream.
It is time we took a big step backwards and reassessed our understanding of Brand America’s promise (the American Dream). What is it really? Is it really out of reach as claimed in a recent article published by Money Magazine?
What Really Is the American Dream?
Xavier University has created the Center For The Study of The American Dream to help better understand what the Dream actually is. Here is a brief synopsis of what they have found:
- The American Dream is actually a collection of many individual dreams. Each of us defines our own American Dream. In general, however, James Truslow Adams description above is actually pretty accurate.
- Our individual relationship to the American Dream changes through our life stages. What we dream as a youth changes as we grow older. In a recent presentation I explained that when I graduated College my dream was a six-pack of beer in the refrigerator and enough cash to have a date on a Friday night. But, that is certainly no longer the case.
- The American Dream can be quantitatively defined. Xavier University has created a statistically valid approach to describing and measuring the American Dream. It debunks the media’s notion the American Dream is one-dimensional. It is much more complex than that. And, for the first time it provides a practical way to assess the authenticity of the promise.
The American Dream Composite Index™ powered by dunnhumby is a measure of American sentiment. It reveals what residents of the U.S. strive for, work for, and hope for. It is the first, and only, measure that assesses the American Dream in its entirety.
The ADCI uses a questionnaire comprised of 139 statistically validated statements pertaining to various aspects of the American Dream. Responses to these statements comprise, not one, but 35 dimensions that make-up the American Dream. These dimensions provide important insight into the barriers residents are facing in pursuit of their American Dream. Ultimately, these dimensions are rolled up into an overall composite score that describes what percent of the American Dream is being realized.
Strategically, when the data is evaluated on a state or major MSA basis, identified gaps in performance at the dimension level can be used to inform community development plans. Positive gaps (advantages) versus national average or a cohort of competitive locations can be expanded. And negative gaps (disadvantages) can be closed through asset creation, infrastructure investment and/or public policies.
Given the Xavier University research, no longer should the American Dream be characterized as owning a home, getting an education or having a good paying job. It is more complex than that, and over simplification does not promote understanding.
Measure of True Accountability
One exciting potential is to use the ADCI data to measure performance of both elected officials and economic development professionals. Both groups are focused on making a positive difference in the lives of the residents they serve. Improvement over time in resident’s ability to achieve their American Dream is the quintessential performance metric. It is why we elect officials and what we expect from the investment of our tax dollars in community development.
I have worked with Xavier University to use the calendar 2013 ADCI data to identify American Dream states and Cities. These are locations where their ADCI score indexes 105 or greater than national average. Net, residents in these locations are feeling markedly better about their ability to achieve their American Dream. These are locations that should be evaluated further to understand the key sentiment drivers with an eye toward reapplication potential.
American Dream States
- New Mexico
- District of Columbia
- South Carolina
American Dream Cities
- Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT
- Jacksonville, FL
- Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA
- Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL
- Rochester, NY
- Columbus, OH
- Raleigh-Cary, NC