The Relationship Between The American Dream And Opportunity

The Atlantic published (August 2019) an article about the work of Raj Chetty, PhD.  Raj is studying the effect of place on generational social mobility.  The essence of his work is that place matters.  I would encourage every economic development professional to read this article.  It will give you cause for pause. 

While Raj can identify where opportunity for social mobility exists in the US, he does not have confirmed insight into what makes one place better than another.  I would hypothesize the perceived ability to achieve the American Dream will positively correlate with Raj’s findings and hopefully he will look at the Xavier University research to confirm or reject that hypothesis.

Even without those data, it is important to note job availability is not a sufficient measure to explain why one location outperforms another in providing opportunity for achieving the American Dream (which Raj defines as personal income growth).

I believe the underlying reason why is that the American Dream is not defined by a single criterion like income.  Rather, Xavier University’s research informs us the American Dream is an amalgamation of both financial and social factors.  A number of years ago, Michael Ford (one of Xavier University’s pioneers on the subject) wrote:  “The Dream is not about a job. A job is an American assumption despite the current discouraging employment state of affairs. Americans don’t spend their Dream time imagining a job but rather what a job enables. We can worry about jobs, but we don’t Dream about them. 

Of course the state of affairs related to unemployment has changed since Michael authored his perspective.  But, the essence of his point hasn’t changed – the American Dream cannot be described by only one factor.

So, if upward mobility isn’t the definition of the American Dream, what is?

I’ll paraphrase Dr. Greg Smith’s (one of the research founders) definition: It can be defined as having the freedom and opportunity to pursue personal contentment, health and prosperity. Fundamentally the Dream is about hope – the hope that every individual of whatever status has the opportunity to be all he or she can be.

Importantly, Xavier University’s research finds the American Dream is made up of 35 dimensions.

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

When you consider the American Dream is about hope, it is not surprising Raj is having difficulty correlating opportunity with a single explanatory variable.  It is also why I hypothesize his work will positively correlate with the degree to which residents of a location believe they are achieving their American Dream.  I hope Raj reads this post and explores the relationship between his work and the Xavier University data.

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