5 Myths You Shouldn’t Believe About The American Dream

Ed BurghardAnd so even though we still face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.  It is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream.

Martin Luther King Jr.


Everybody seems to think they know what the American Dream is.  Recent headlines in the news media would have you believe the American Dream is to own a home, or create a successful business, or accumulate wealth.  The truth however is that the American Dream is not just one thing, it is more complex than that.

Xavier University has conducted research that actually quantifies the American Dream.  I have written on this a number of times, and encourage you to read some of my earlier blog posts to better understand what actually makes up the American Dream.  In this post, I want to debunk several pervasive myths about the American Dream.  The data I will quote is from the Xavier University Center For Study of The American Dream National Survey (n > 1,300 adults).  Hopefully, it will peak your interest into learning more about the Xavier University work and what the American Dream is really all about.

5 Surprising Myths

#1 – The American Dream is About Getting Rich

  • Only 6% of respondents ranked “wealth” as their first or second definition of the American Dream
  • 45% of respondents named “a good life for my family”
  • 34% of respondents said “financial security”
  • 32% of respondents indicated “freedom”
  • 21% of respondents cited “pursuit of happiness”

#2 – Homeownership is The American Dream

  • Only 7% surveyed ranked “home ownership” as their first or second definition of the American Dream
  • The Federal Government and the Media has overruled this as the definition f the American Dream

#3 – The American Dream is American

  • It is actually a phrase coined by James Truslow Adams in his book “The Epic of America”
  • It is a dream established by immigrants

#4 – China Threatens The American Dream

  • 57% of respondents believe “the world now looks to many different countries to represent the future”
  • Neither China nor these other countries can be blamed for US choices that have placed our financial future increasingly out of our hands

#5 – Distrust of Business and Government is Killing The American Dream

  • 65% of respondents believe America is in decline
  • 89% of respondents say they have less trust in the government
  • 79% of respondents indicate they have less trust in business
  • 72% of respondents say trust in media is declining
  • Despite all this, 63% of respondents say they are confident they will attain their American Dream

 Why Does it Matter?

I write about the American Dream because it is the promise of Brand America.  And in order to be effective, that promise must be authentic.  I worry that both globally and domestically, Brand America’s promise is increasingly seen as inauthentic.  And without a clear understanding of what the American Dream actually is, attempts to address the issues will inevitably result in failure (or worse still will exacerbate the problem).

I think the job of our elected officials and economic development professionals is to better enable the residents they serve to achieve their American Dream.  And, the Xavier University American Dream Composite Index (ADCI) powered by dunnhumby is a quantitative way to assess if they are being successful or not.  I have worked with Xavier University to make the data available at both the state and major MSA level.  This allows a meaningful comparison between locations on how well residents feel they are achieving their American Dream.  I encourage you to download both reports and learn how well you Governor or Mayor is doing.  These results should be taken into consideration before you enter the voting booth.  It is time we hold elected officials directly accountable to the residents they serve.  The ADCI data allows you to do just that.


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5 Comments so far

  1. Choose DuPage

    August 18, 2014

    It’d be interesting to see what people defined the American Dream as fifty years ago and how they do it today. It’s a good point you make to remember that there are many different perspectives on what the American Dream is. Thanks for the article.

  2. Ed Burghard

    August 18, 2014

    Great point. I wish the Xavier University research was available years ago. But, one way to get a handle on your question is to look at the definition across age cohorts. The research indicates the same 35 dimensions hold, but different age cohorts may assess a different importance on a given dimension. Net, over half a century the definition of what the American Dream is has been consistent.

  3. […] 5 Myths You Shouldn’t Believe About The American Dream […]

  4. Kirk Hill

    July 11, 2015

    The American Dream I always figured was just one of those clever terms bandied around by politicians. They’d dangle it before the working class in an effort to gain their votes. It goes right along with “Freedom” and all those other catchy lies. Each means what it means to different people and no two are exactly the same.

  5. Edward

    July 11, 2015

    Kirk – The American Dream is the ethos of the United States. Each Nation has its own “Dream”. Xavier University has actually quantified the American Dream. Their research confirms it can be statistically described by 35 distinct dimensions (contrary to the media insistence that it is synonymous with home ownership). Similar research could be done in other Nations and the defined dimensions would likely be different. While the American Dream definition is statistically consistent for residents of the USA, the importance and satisfaction levels of each dimension vary so (as you point out) each resident’s individual Dream is relatively unique. The value of this research is in helping inform strategic plans for national and local development.

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