What Really Is The American Dream?

The American dream is that dream of a land in which life should be richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.

Quote Attributed to: James Truslow Adams

For months I have been responding to articles and posts that misrepresent the American Dream. I do this because I believe having a valid understanding the American Dream is key to figuring out how to make it easier to achieve. In this post, I will give you an overview of Xavier University’s seminal research on the American Dream. Xavier University has developed the only statistically validated measure of the American Dream. Their American Dream Composite Index study defines the American Dream and measures resident perception on the degree to which they are achieving their American Dream.

My hope is that this post will 1) better inform you about what the American Dream really is and 2) serve as background for authors who decide to write articles or blog posts on the subject so they can avoid misinforming the public.

Research Findings

Xavier University’s study indicates the American Dream is not one-dimensional. In fact, the Dream is actually made up of 35 separate dimensions (based on factor analysis). This finding means articles suggesting the American Dream is defined as owning a home, or getting a college education, or making more money than your parents, or upward mobility (just to name but a few themes of pieces I have read over the last year) are incorrect and misleading. This is important because authors suggesting the American Dream is one-dimensional are often promoting a self-serving agenda.

Here is a list of the 35 dimensions. I don’t think any of them will surprise you. But, you may be surprised at their breath. Xavier University took appropriate steps to ensure the dimensions are related to each other in appropriate and predictable ways.

  • 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 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
  • 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

Xavier University statistically grouped these 35 dimensions into 5 super dimensions they refer to as sub-indicies. These sub-indicies are an easy way to define the American Dream.

  1. Economic – This measures satisfaction, freedom and progress with respect to finances, job, home ownership and health care.
  2. Well-Being – This reflects the extent of contentment, health and prosperity.
  3. Societal – This reflects the extent the government; businesses; and people are seen as fair and trustworthy.
  4. Diversity – This reflects attitudes toward assimilation of differences in the community.
  5. Environment – This reflects the extent of noticeable pollution in the air, food, water and land.


I believe the role of Government is to make it easier for U.S. residents to achieve their American Dream. The choices made regarding asset creation/management, infrastructure investment, and public policy creation/reform should be evaluated on whether they make achieving the American Dream easier or harder. And, this should be done across the full spectrum of residents elected officials serve. If a proposed initiative fails to help make it easier (or worst case makes it harder), the question of whether it provides a positive return on taxpayer dollars is moot.

The other thing to point out is the American Dream cannot be achieved if we fail to value diversity, or we fail to be good stewards of the environment, or we fail to provide a path to economic security, or we fail to address heath challenges, or we fail to be respectful and treat people fairly. This is important, because in order to better enable U.S. residents to achieve their American Dream we need strategies to improve perceived performance across all the sub-indicies not just one. For example, creating jobs by sacrificing the environment is not a viable pathway to better enabling the American Dream. We need to recognize this and act accordingly.

My Message To Elected Officials

Make reading the Xavier University ADCI study a priority. Understand what the American Dream really is and how well your residents perceive they are achieving it. For perspective, I author an annual American Dream States and Cities Report that provides this insight. Only support programs that either 1) make it easier for your residents to achieve their American Dream or 2) remove barriers to achieving their American Dream. If a program cannot be justified on that basis, make it a low priority and focus your attention on programs that do.

My Message To Authors

Stop misrepresenting the American Dream. Quit telling readers they need to own a home to achieve the American Dream. There are plenty of people whose American Dream includes living in an apartment. Quit telling readers that getting a job is the American Dream. There are a lot of retirees who don’t want a job, but do want to achieve their American Dream. Quit telling readers the key is a college degree. There are a lot of people with a college degree who are not on the path to achieving their American Dream. Bottom line – stop misinforming the public and start defining the American Dream correctly. Owning a home, having a job, getting a college degree are certainly enablers that help some residents achieve their American Dream. But, they are not the same as the American Dream.

My Message To Readers

Reject articles that define the American Dream as one-dimension. You now know better than that. To the extent you can, encourage your elected officials to get familiar with the Xavier University research and only elect people who believe their role is to make it easier for you to achieve your personal version of the American Dream. I truly believe if that is their genuine focus we will be far better served. And, I also ask you lend you voice by commenting on posts you see that misrepresent the American Dream. Provide a link in your comment to the Xavier University research or this blog post so other readers can be appropriately informed on wht the American Dream really is.


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