Searching For The American Dream in a COVID-19 World

My sister recently forwarded me an NPR article written by Claire Harbage titled “Searching For The American Dream On Paradise Road”. It was an article about the work of photographer Eliot Dudik. The article has some great pictures if you enjoy photography. But, I want to focus on Claire’s interpretation of the American Dream.

Here are five take aways from the article:

  • The American Dream is unique to individuals. “Each photograph unveils a different view of a potential paradise …”, “He wondered: Were others trying to achieve their own version of the American Dream, as he was?”
  • The American Dream is about achieving prosperity through hard work. “Anyone can achieve prosperity if they work hard enough.”
  • The American Dream is ever changing. “Personally, this dream seems to continually shift as new desires, obstacles and realities become apparent.”
  • The playing field for achieving the American Dream is not level. “Privilege and access certainly play a major role in construction and achievement of one’s goals.”
  • The American Dream remains important. “As we continually find ourselves in scenarios that seemingly couldn’t possibly get any worse, it’s all the more critical to hold onto the steady tenets of the American Dream: hope, rebirth and resiliency.”

In general, Claire (and Eliot) are directionally right in their interpretation of the American Dream and its importance to our national ethos. But, i would like to correct a few important things and add some additional context based on Xavier University’s quantitative research into what the American Dream actually is.

First, let’s start with a general description of the American Dream “contract”. According to Xavier University, Jame Truslow Adams was pretty spot on in his description. “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” In my 2014 Site Selection Magazine article I state “The dream of a freer and more fulfilled life is what all residents seek, and is embedded in the core promise of our nation. It is the reason people immigrate to America and the reason residents get out of bed each morning to tackle the myriad challenges they face on any given day.” But, the dream isn’t a birthright or a guarantee. In my opinion, President Regan was spot on when he said “The American dream is not that every man must be level with every other man. The American dream is that every man must be free to become whatever God intends he should become.”

The American Dream is unique to individuals. The Xavier University research concluded the American Dream is really a compilation of many dreams. In that sense, the article is basically right. Each of us has a unique capability, potential and desire for success. We look at the American Dream through our personal lens. And, it can look very different as Eliot’s photographic images suggest. That doesn’t mean one person’s dream is more or less important than another’s. It is simply a reflection that we each walk a unique path on this planet and are motivated by different things.

The American Dream is about achieving prosperity through hard work. This conclusion isn’t true as a general statement. Xavier University researchers found the American Dream is actually comprised of 35 dimensions which include: a) economic factors such as home ownership, financial security, and job characteristics; b) personal well-being factors such as family and friends, leisure, and happiness; c) societal factors such as trust in government, justice, civic participation; d) diversity factors; and e) the physical environment. Consequently, the American Dream is more complex than the simplistic notion that hard work leads to prosperity and prosperity equals the American Dream. But it is true you need to invest seat equity to achieve your version of the American Dream. Nobody is going to simply hand it to you.

The American Dream is ever changing. This statement also needs qualification based on the research. The 35 statistically derived dimensions of the American Dream are stable and do not change over time. However the importance you place on any one of the dimensions does. Consequently, your personal American Dream changes with your personal life situation over time. My relationship with my American Dream has definitely morphed. What I considered the dream when I was a College student versus what I consider my dream to be as a grandfather are very different. The dimensions remain the same but the dimensions I now view most important are not the same. I am willing to bet this is true for every American.

The playing field for achieving the American Dream is not level. This is an absolutely true statement. Subsequent analysis of the data suggests where you live makes a difference on your opportunity to achieve your American Dream. I created the American Dream State and Cities ranking to help illustrate the difference local policies and resources can make as either impediments or accelerators to achieving your dream. Unfortunately, Xavier University has been unable to provide me updated data due to lack of project funding. But, the 2018 listing is available for you to look at. It has long been my opinion the job of elected officials is to better enable constituents to achieve their American Dream. Let me just say some do a better job of it than others.

The American Dream remains important. I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. The American Dream is just as worth fighting for today as it was in 1776. It is the promise of our Nation and the source of American exceptionalism.

I hope I have given you a little deeper look into what the American Dream actually is. The more you learn about it, the better able you will be to hold our elected officials accountable. I encourage every American to understand how different policies will impact your ability to achieve your dream before casting a vote. This COVID-19 pandemic has provided us all time for introspection on what really matters, so it is a perfect time to increase your understanding of the American Dream and assess your progress in achieving your own version.

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