A Bit of Nuance: The Reality and Livelihood of the American Dream

Updated: Mar 17

*The views displayed in this article are not reflective of the opinions of the writers. The information presented describes opposite ends of the spectrum regarding the topics being addressed to allow readers to find a median.*

The notion of the American Dream was coined in the early 1930s, promising that any American could achieve opportunities despite their class or where they were born. The promises of the American Dream attracted millions of immigrants throughout the 1900s by portraying America as a haven in the world and an opportunity for a fresh start. Flash forward to this year, the idea of the American Dream has definitely died down, but has it died completely? Recent racial and social tensions have prompted controversy over whether the American Dream was even feasible in the first place. In Lenses 8th edition of “A Bit of Nuance,” Staff Writer Achraf Azzaoui and Staff Editor Samir Chowdhury explain both sides of this complex yet dynamic topic to allow you to form your own opinion on the matter.


Opinion: The American Dream is Alive Samir Chowdhury

Opinion: The American Dream is Dead Achraf Azzaoui

On Living Standards: Living Standards at All-Time High Imagine a world where any opportunity is available to you, regardless of where you were born or what class you were born into. The American Dream is the ideal that entails this notion. Through sacrifice, risk-taking, and hard work, anyone can achieve their highest aspirations. Today, the American Dream still lives on, stronger than ever. This is reflected by the living standards of Americans, which are at an all-time high. The Merriam Webster defines the standard of living as “the necessities, comforts, and luxuries enjoyed or aspired to by an individual or group.” According to the Bureau of Economic Statistics, a more quantitative representation is found by analyzing the disposable income and consumption series. These two measures of standards of living are up 61% and 67%, respectively, from March 1989 through March 2019. Essentially, these values indicate that American households are relishing record standards of living. In addition to the Bureau of Economic Statistics, other groups, such as Gallup, an American analytics and advisory company, have uncovered findings that corroborate the standard of living. In 2017, Gallup found Americans’ ratings of their standard of living to be the best in all of its 10-year tracking time. The index average for 2017 was +54, which was four points over 2016’s record-high of +50. The index represents how satisfied Americans are with their living standards and whether they believe it is increasing or decreasing. This year, these statistics have likely fallen due to the pandemic. However, the rare occurrence of COVID-19 does not take away from years of improvement in living standards. With the American Dream’s achievement centered around economic freedom, these living standards reveal that Americans are achieving economic prosperity at an unprecedented rate, showcasing that the American Dream is more alive now than ever.

On Living Standards: It is increasingly difficult for Americans to Out-Earn Their Ancestors Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”; this is an empty welcoming of endearment to weary immigrants searching for a better future, quoted from The New Colossus, the iconic Emma Lazarus poem written on the Statue of Liberty. The American Dream has been sold as the notion that equal opportunities for success are attainable by a person’s work ethic no matter their demographic background. However, this social contract has been all but tattered to pieces. To better understand whether we truly do possess equal opportunity, we must turn towards the statistic of intergenerational mobility, which determines the strength of the association between parent and offspring incomes. Unfortunately, the words of Michael D. Carr, an economist at the University of Massachusetts, ring true — “No matter what your educational background is, where you start has become increasingly important for where you end.” According to a research paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, absolute mobility mobility rates have fallen from 90% to 50% when comparing children born in 1940 to children born in 1980. The data tells a frightening story; it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to outearn their parents. What appears to be evident is that the most impactful determinants of one’s living standard and measurable success manifest at birth, rather than ideals of hard work and entrepreneurial spirit. The research paper also concludes that changing the distribution of growth across income groups, to that similar to the more equally spread 1940 birth cohort, would reverse more than 70% of the decline in mobility. Meanwhile, accounting for the decline in GDP only results in a 29% reverse of decline in mobility, affirming income inequality as the primary contributor to reduced social mobility. The concept of equal opportunity in current American society begins to seem similar to a pipe dream when considering that the U.S. is the most unequal developed nation in the world. Between 1989 and 2016, the wealth gap between the richest and poorest American families more than doubled — not only that, but the top 400 wealthiest Americans hold more wealth and therefore purchasing power than the bottom 150 million adults, a clear signifier of the extent of wealth concentration in the status quo.

On Education and Economics: Today’s education accessibility allows students to achieve their goals In today’s world, education is arguably the most important tool to succeed in the future and achieve the goals highlighted in the American Dream. Education gives you the skills required for employment, gives you increased earning power, and turns your dreams into a reality. According to a study from Georgetown University, “graduates earn $1 million more in earnings over their lifetime.” Furthermore, another study conducted by the Pew Research Center discovered that the median yearly income gap between collegiate and secondary school graduates is around $17,500. Thus, education is key to future economic prosperity, one of the American Dream’s main ideals. Today, according to the Center for American Progress, the rate at which secondary school graduates can attend college is at an all-time high. Furthermore, groups such as the Center for American Progress are designing proposals to improve student access to higher education by fostering debt-free degrees and focusing on low-income students and students of color. The proposal from the Center for American Progress, “Beyond Tuition,” restores “the promise of affordable higher education for all and to reduce the burden of student debt” with “an emphasis on addressing widespread inequity in opportunity and outcomes.” Thus, with the high school to college attendance at an all-time high and groups such as the Center for American Progress fighting to combat existing inequality in education accessibility, the American Dream lives on. Now more than ever, students can use education to accomplish their goals in the future.

On Education and Economics: Higher Education is unattainable, lower socioeconomic classes face disadvantages due to current economic policies Income inequality can be attributed to the implementation of the trickle-down economics theory, which states that corporate income tax cuts will generate boosts in economic productivity., Theoretically, this will ensure returns in the long term for low-income individuals. Ronald Reagan first popularized this manner in approaching economics in the 1980s as part of a platform dubbed “Reaganomics.” This ideology is also present in George W. Bush’s tax cuts of 2001 and 2003. The entire philosophy of trickle down economics, which a large portion of recent U.S. fiscal policy has been centered around, depends on the notion that corporations’ monetary gains due to lower taxes will be reallocated to worker wages. However, this is not the case; worker productivity and worker wages have had an almost inverse relationship since 1973, diverging from each other in an unfavorable way for the working class. From 1973-2014, net worker productivity has risen 72.2%, while inflation-adjusted hourly wages have gone up just 8.7% in comparison. Even then, this marginal wage growth was unevenly spearheaded by the top 10% earners in the U.S.The American Dream cannot exist in a world where fiscal policy is catered to work for corporations instead of working-class individuals. Over the past century, we’ve witnessed the U.S. transition from a mostly manufacturing-based economy to one centered around services. The service industry currently takes up 78.85% of jobs in the U.S. Meanwhile, manufacturing jobs have continued to decrease since the 1980s, primarily due to automation. Consequently, workers have been forced into other fields that often require a post-secondary education. Post secondary education has proved to be inaccessible; data released by the Federal Reserve shows that 44.7 million Americans carry some amount of student loan debt. The class of 2019 graduated with a mean debt of $29,900, and college isn’t necessarily proving to be a worthwhile investment in many cases; only 27% of college graduates end up working in a field related to their major. Higher education was once seen as a cornerstone of achieving the American Dream, but rising costs and shaky outcomes are beginning to make it obsolete.

On Race: Improvements in race equality indicate American Dream is alive As mentioned earlier, the American Dream promises equal opportunity of success to everyone, despite their demographic. With the recent prevalence of the Black Lives Matter movement, our country’s inequalities between races have been nationally scrutinized. However, it is essential to note that these inequalities are fortunately decreasing, which only bolsters the American Dream’s promises. According to the U.S. Joint Economic Committee (JEC), Black Americans have made immense substantial economic progress in past years and have seen significant gains in incomes and wealth. In fact, recent unemployment rates for Black workers have reached historic lows. The JEC found that between 2010 and 2019, Black unemployment has been slashed by over half, falling from 16.8% to 6.6%. Moreover, the gap between Black and white unemployment rates had vastly shrunk from a peak of 6.8% to 2.7%, another vast improvement. Another increasing statistic relates to the median household income. When comparing Black people and all races, from 1980 to 2017, Black people had the most substantial increase in this metric. With an increase from $30,000 to $40,600, Black median household income increased by 35.3% instead of a 22.8% increase for all other races. Furthermore, in regards to economic power, the JEC found that Black Americans make “significant contributions to the economy as job creators and consumers.” Specifically, the committee reported that Black-owned businesses were able to give jobs to over a million people and produce over $104 billion in sales as a result in 2016. Lastly, in 2017, the black community generated $1.2 trillion in consumer spending, a metric that is projected to reach $1.5 trillion by 2021. There are apparent disparities in our society between people of color and white Americans. However, Black people reported upward trends and economic influence reveal that the American Dream is still alive for these demographics and is projected to become a stronger reality in the future.

On Race: Widespread discrimination prevents “American Dream” from being attainable to everyone Regardless of demographic, the American Dream claims to be achievable for all individuals through work ethic. Yet, how can this statement be valid in the face of various existing inequities in our society today? Homeownership has been one of the staples of the American Dream and an avenue to building generational wealth, but discrimination plagues the housing market. In a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development real estate agents have been found to show fewer available homes to minorities compared to equally qualified white Americans. Furthermore, a study conducted by the Suffolk University Law School found that Black Americans were 32% less likely to be allowed to schedule an apartment tour, and 54% more likely to be “ghosted” by apartment brokers. The job market shows a similar prevalence of racial bias. However, de jure (practices that are legally recognized) discrimination was outlawed during the civil rights era, de facto (practices that exist in reality not recognized by legislation) discrimination continues to present itself. Caucasian sounding names on job applications are 50% more likely to receive job offers than ones with African-American sounding names, even when both applications have similar credentials. There is deep-rooted underlying bias in our society that cannot be solved by just implementing targeted outreach or job training programs for minorities.