What Is Blocking The American Dream In Illinois?

The Land Of Lincoln


Roughly 13 million people live in Illinois. The state’s economy relies mainly on agriculture, manufacturing, energy and services. It is hard to think of Illinois without Chicago coming to mind. In part, that is because Chicago is the only city in Illinois with a population greater than 1 million (~2.7 million). It is the third most populous city in the Nation. Chicago is located between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. Early in Chicago’s history, this location played an important role in propelling Chicago to prominence. Today, Chicago is an international hub for finance, commerce, industry, technology, telecommunications, and transportation: O’Hare International Airport is the second-busiest airport in the world when measured by aircraft traffic; the region also has the largest number of U.S. highways and railroad freight.

Of course, recently Chicago has been in the news for the high murder rate and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proclamation to remain a sanctuary city.

Rather than listen to the Media, 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.

In this blog post, I am using this 3-year data set to compare perceptions of Illinois residents compared to national averages. I elected to focus on reporting dimensions where Illinois 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.

A complete description of all dimensions and a listing of States and Cities where residents feel it is easier to achieve their American Dream (statistically significant positive difference versus national average) can be found in the January issue of Site Selection magazine (article starts on page #182).


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

State of Illinois

Freedom of Expression (98.7)

Environment (97.1)

Safety in Community (98.3)

Political Freedom (98.6)

There are often different perceptions when you drill down to the MSA level. Here are the statistically significant differences for the 2 additional MSAs referenced above. Note, the dimensions will vary versus the state. If a dimension is listed under the state, but not under an MSA it means the perception of residents living in that MSA is not statistically significantly below national average.

Chicago-Naperville-Joliet, IL-IN-WI MSA

Environment (97.7)

Possible Next Steps

Residents of Illinois feel there are a few dimensions representing a roadblock to achieving their American Dream. The list is reasonably short, and resident perception does not appear consistent with the Media presentation of either the state or the Chicago MSA.

Going forward it is important elected officials and economic development professionals peel the onion back to determine 1) what the barriers are and 2) the degree to which they are roadblocks varies across the state.

It is important to understand the difference in perception of Chicago residents and residents from the rest of the state. These differences imply there are some barriers that can be addressed at the State level, but others requiring local strategies.  I want to reiterate only statistically significant short comings versus national average are presented in this post.  All other dimensions are either statistically equivalent or statistically superior to national average.

Economic development professionals and elected officials should explore resident sentiment 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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