What Is Blocking The American Dream In California?

Eureka! ; The Golden State

Roughly 38.8 million people live in California.   It is the most populous state in the United States. If it were a country, California would be the sixth largest economy in the world. There are 482 cities and towns in California. The majority of these are within one of 5 MSAs – Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay Area, Riverside-San Bernardino, San Diego and Sacramento.

I believe the most appropriate measure of success for economic development professionals and elected officials is to make it easy for residents to achieve their American Dream. Thanks to the Xavier University’s research, we can now quantitatively define the American Dream and we can measure the degree to which residents in states and mid-large MSAs feel they are achieving their American Dream. These data can be used to strategically identify existing roadblocks and guide planning to remove them.

The American Dream

Xavier University has defined 35 dimensions that combined define the American Dream. These dimensions cluster into 5 super dimensions that reflect the scope of a person’s life:

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

A national random sample of residents completes the online survey each month. The researchers at Xavier University then compile the data and once a year provide The Burghard Group with a geographically aggregated 3-year data set. This data set is used to publish the annual selection of American Dream States and Cities Report (article begins on page 182)

In this blog post, I am using this 3-year data set to compare perceptions of California residents compared to national averages. I elected to focus on reporting dimensions where California resident perceptions of achievement fall short of national average. However, it should be noted the data set could also be used to identify where the state is doing better than national average.   Another helpful analysis is to compare local resident perceptions with perceptions of residents in other states.


The data are presented as an index versus national average. Only dimensions with statistically significant differences are identified.

State of California

Freedom of Expression (98.7)

Environment (93.0)

Political Freedom (98.0)

There are often different perceptions when you drill down to the MSA level. Here are the statistically significant differences for each of the 5 major MSAs referenced above.

Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Anna MSA

Freedom of Expression (98.2)

Family Support (98.2)

Environment (91.2)

Home Ownership (97.6)

San Francisco-Oakland-Freemont MSA

Freedom of Expression (97.7)

Environment (91.6)

Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario MSA

Environment (95.7)

San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos MSA

Environment (95.4)

Sacramento-Arden-Arcade-Roseville MSA

[There are no dimensions with a statistically significant negative difference versus national average)

Possible Next Steps

Clearly, residents of California feel there are aspects of the environment [extent of pollution in the air, food, water and land encountered on a regular basis] representing a roadblock to achieving their American Dream.

Similarly, residents of California don’t feel as good as the rest of the Nation about their freedom to express themselves without repercussion.

Economic development professionals and elected officials should explore resident sentiment in these areas more closely to better understand the drivers. This can be achieved through additional local qualitative and/or quantitative research. Understanding why residents feel the way they do is an important step toward identifying strategies to reduce or eliminate these barriers to fully achieving their American Dream.

What Can You Do?

Share this post with your local economic development organization and your elected officials (Mayor, member of Congress, Senator, Governor). By doing so, you will help create a better understanding of what the American Dream is and the roadblocks to achieving it in your state. And, if you have any ideas why residents in your state feel the above are roadblocks please leave a comment.

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