Practical Use Of The American Dream Data

Ed Burghard“He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast.”

Leonardo da Vinci


A good friend of mine recently sent me an email in regards to my post “What Does It Take To Be An American Dream State?”. What I love about my friend is his penchant for taking theory and driving it to practical action. I always appreciate friends like Mark because they keep me grounded.

His email read:

“Your recent postings along the line of where states are falling short of the American Dream, led me to think there might be some area for elaboration I connecting the theoretical to the practice.”

“What I’m looking for is how to make the connection with the question: What do we do with this information, now that we know it’s a concern?”

I think it is a great observation and question. One I am certain many of you share with my friend. Hopefully the following is a good first step in providing you an answer.

Seven Step Process

Step #1 – Define a cohort of competitive locations. This could either be competitive states or competitive MSAs with populations over 1 million. This cohort becomes your benchmark to help you determine opportunities for improvement. Typically, a group of 2-3 competitive locations is sufficient.

Step #2 – Complete a gap analysis. This analysis compares your location versus the competitive cohort on all 35 American Dream Composite Index dimensions. If your location’s score is +5% or greater than the competition, the dimension represents a competitive advantage. Conversely, if your location’s dimension score is -5% or less than the competition, the dimension represents a competitive disadvantage.

Step #3 – Prioritize the positive and negative gaps. It is not feasible to work on every performance gap at the same time. Therefore, you need to select those with the greatest potential positive impact and the highest probability of success. This is a leadership judgment call.

For only the top priority gaps you identified …

Step #4 – Understand the sentiment drivers for each prioritized dimension by conducting a local market research study of your residents. You want to identify the perceived barriers to scoring better. Ultimately leadership will need to develop, resource and deploy strategies to remove (or reduce) these barriers.

Step #5 – Benchmark the best-in-class performers. Talk with the States or MSAs that are rated in the top 3 for the dimensions you have prioritized. Try and determine what assets, infrastructure, public policies or programs they have in place that are helping drive a higher resident rating. The learning from this benchmark exercise should inform improvement strategies for leadership consideration.

Step #6 – Design and deploy strategies to widen your prioritized competitive advantages and reduce the performance gap on those selected dimensions that are competitive disadvantages. When designing strategies, think in terms of asset creation, infrastructure investment, public policy reform and special programs. Don’t forget that resident misperceptions may be best addressed through a public awareness strategy.

Step #7 – Check progress and adjust as needed. Remember, better enabling residents to achieve their American Dream is both an absolute and a relative goal. Improvement in the absolute dimension ratings from your residents is a positive outcome. But remember, the competition is not standing still. Ideally you will also see a positive change in the relative performance of your location versus the competitive cohort you identified (and the national average).


I am hoping the process outlined above is helpful. In my mind the big value of focusing on better enabling residents to achieve their American Dream is the resultant discussions around the performance gaps. I believe they will be more robust than conversations focused on job creation, retention and expansion. And, the discussions will be more inclusive by providing a platform for any group involved in economic development in a location to participate and add value.

When I speak about the American Dream to economic development organizations, I typically make three points.

  1. You don’t create jobs and the business leaders are really not interested in you helping them to create jobs (although they will happily take your job creation incentives). Business leaders want your help in finding skilled personnel to backfill job vacancies from retiring baby boomers and any new jobs they need to create to maintain competitiveness. We are experiencing an unprecedented period in our Nation’s history where the number of people leaving the workforce is actually greater than the number of people entering it.
  2. Focusing on job creation directly impacts less than 10% of your residents. National studies suggest only 40% of unemployed workers are employable (60% need training). If your community unemployment rate is roughly equivalent to national average (6%), then new jobs are meaningful to only 2.4% of your residents. When my alarm goes off in the morning, it is hard for me to get excited about getting up and impacting only 2% of the residents in my community. I want my work to impact 100%. Focusing on better enabling residents to achieve their American Dream can impact 100%. [For those readers who are going to comment about the multiplier effect of new jobs, please be aware I understand it. I know I am taking some license in my comment for effect.]
  3. By making your community a location where it is easier for somebody to achieve their American Dream, you create a positive point of competitive difference. A survey among business executives suggests they see a P&L benefit from having employees feel like they are achieving their American Dream. In fact, when a final site selection decision needs to be made, a community’s ADCI score can actually be the tiebreaker.

Please take a closer look at the Xavier University data and think about how you might use it in strategic planning for your location.

If you are focused on a state or an MSA with a population of 1 million or greater and want a gap analysis completed, drop me an email ( The cost is $25 per location. For example, if you select a cohort of 3 locations the cost is $75. What you will receive is a report that shows an index for your location versus the competition for each of the 35 ADCI dimensions. The report will help you address Step #2 of the process.


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