What Is The American Dream?

Every politician speaks of it, but few elected officials actually understand it.  And, the Media consistently mischaracterizes the American Dream as earning a College education, owning a home, or experiencing upward mobility.  However, none of these descriptions are accurate.

At the core of the American Dream is the idea of a better life and that every citizen should have an opportunity to pursue it.  But, it is individuals who actually define what “a better life” means.  So, trying to define the American Dream as any one thing is a fool’s chase. In reality, the promise of America is simple – everyone willing to learn, work and play by the rules of the land should have a fair chance of achieving their dream.

To be clear though, a “fair chance” means everyone is afforded an opportunity.  It does not imply a birthright contract where the Nation owes everyone his or her American Dream. It must be earned.  People can opt not to invest sweat equity or abide by the law and they will inevitably fail to achieve their version of the American Dream.

So, if the American Dream is actually defined individually, can it meaningfully be described in general terms?  This was the challenge faced by Xavier University professors.  To solve this conundrum they developed a statistically designed and validated market research questionnaire – The American Dream Composite Index (ADCI).  The ADCI study looks at perceptions of 55 statistically unique dimensions in the areas of economic security, general wellbeing, societal fairness, diversity acceptance, and environmental quality.  National data is collected among U.S. residents on a monthly basis and then aggregated for analytic and reporting purposes.  The aggregate ADCI score represents the degree to which people feel they are achieving their personal American Dream.

One key conclusion from the data is there are specific cities and states in the U.S. where residents feel their American Dream is being achieved to a statistically significantly greater degree than national average. These locations are designated as American Dream locations.

Here is a list the 2018 American Dream cities and states. Do you live in one?

2018 American Dream States
District of Columbia
New York
New Jersey
North Carolina
2018 American Dream Cities
Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers, AR-MO MSA
Olympia, WA MSA
Sioux Falls, SD MSA
Utica-Rome, NY MSA
Toledo, OH MSA
Huntsville, AL MSA
Port St. Lucie, FL MSA
Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, FL MSA
Davenport-Moline-Rock Island, IA-IL MSA
Deltona-Daytona Beach-Ormond Beach, FL MSA
Springfield, MA MSA
Rockford, IL MSA
Stockton, CA MSA
Harrisburg-Carlisle, PA MSA
San Antonio, TX MSA
Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT MSA
Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord, NC-SC MSA
Baltimore-Towson, MD MSA
St. Louis, MO-IL MSA
Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA MSA
Sarasota-Bradenton-Venice, FL MSA
Orlando-Kissimmee, FL MSA
New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA MSA

The data are based on resident responses over the three-year period of calendar 2015, 2016 and 2017.  Each state and MSA is on the list because resident perception of the degree to which they are achieving their American Dream is statistically significantly greater than national average over that period.

What about these locations better enable achievement of the American Dream?  That is the central question every economic development professional and elected official should be asking.  Why do residents in these locations feel better about achieving their American Dream than residents of my community?

Note, in contrast to many surveys these data do not represent an outsider perspective of a location.  It is a measure of how people who actually live and work in the community perceive their ability to achieve their American Dream.  As such, the resultant data are hard to argue with. 

Some of this year’s American Dream locations appear counter intuitive at first glance. They are certainly worth a deeper dive to understand why residents feel the way they do.  Three key levers should be explored.  The first is location assets.  What assets does the community have that positively impact resident perception on their ability to achieve their American Dream?  The second is local programs and policies (including regulations).  Which do residents see as better enabling their ability to achieve their American Dream?  The third lever is infrastructure.  Are there unique physical and social opportunities that create inclusion and personal development?

Benchmarking these American Dream locations for ideas that can be reapplied locally is one valid use of the data.  But, perhaps a more enlightened use of the data is as an in-process success measure for local strategic development plans.  If the investment choices made will not better enable local residents to achieve their American Dream, the choices should be revisited and discussed/debated by local leadership.  Making annual progress in improving a location’s ADCI score should be the goal of every Mayor, Governor and President. This ultimately holds elected officials directly accountable to the residents they serve.  

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