``I have learned this, at least, from my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.’’ -
-Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854
Eloquent words from Henry David Thoreau’s classic in 19th century America; but how exactly is that moving expression put into practice in the 21st century?
And what exactly is the American Dream?
In the 21st century, that belief might mean landing your own reality show or getting noticed on American Idol, but for the vast majority of Americans -the ideal of getting ahead by holding a steady job with good compensation seems to have been swept out to sea.
James Truslow Adams is thought to have coined the phrase, ``American Dream’’ in his 1931 study, ``The Epic of America’’ when he wrote: ``If the American dream is to come true and to abide with us, it will, at bottom, depend on the people themselves.’’
Ever since then, the phrase has been sprinkled throughout the text of speeches delivered by U.S. presidents. Jimmy Carter said the ``American Dream endures’’; Richard Nixon invoked the phrase in his 1968 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention; as did Ronald Reagan in his October, 1982 address to the nation; and George W. Bush in 2002 said: "If you own your own home, you're realizing the American Dream"
But the prospect of achieving the American Dream has gone through some tumultuous headwinds in the last two decades.
Imagine that just 10 years ago in December 2001, 71 percent of respondents in a Gallup poll believed that the youth would have a better life than their parents. That sentiment has now been sliced to 44 percent, the lowest it has ever been dating back to 1983.
Considering a reported 46.2 million Americans now live below the official poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the highest its been in 52 years, another 14 million without jobs, including an unemployment rate of 16 percent for blacks, 11.3 percent for Hispanics, and 24.6 percent for teenagers, while home ownership has plunged to 65.1 percent, the biggest drop since the Great Depression, the American Dream, for many, is nothing more than an antiquated concept reserved for political stump speeches and 19th century New England Transcendentalists.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the ``American Dream’’ as the ideal that ``every citizen of the United States should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative.’’
How does that ideal hold up today?
In 1994, according to a Roper Starch Worldwide report, 64 percent thought the American Dream was harder to achieve than it was in the past. When the Great Recession hit in 2008, a ``Rockefeller Foundation/Time Campaign for American Workers Survey’’, reported that 45 percent of its respondents thought that even by working hard and playing by the rules, the American Dream was unattainable. And most recently, a 2010 survey by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University reported that 57 percent (of 1, 202 unemployed respondents) believed that no matter how determined they are, hard work does not guarantee success. And as yet another portent of what the future holds: just a third of its panelists believed they will recover financially and return to where they were before the crippling recession took hold with 61 percent not expecting to recover their economic station in life.
Despite the fears of the future, of a double-dip recession, the despair among the unemployed of ever landing on their feet again, the feeling that exploding debt has prevented the country from keeping pace economically with the two Asian giants (China and India); despite all this fear and feeling of hopelessness-Americans, by and large, still refuse to believe our best days are behind us by holding fast to the notion of the American Dream one day becoming a reality if not in their lives than in their children’s and future generations.
According to the Pew Economic Mobility and the American Dream Survey conducted in March, 2011, 37 percent believe they will reach the American Dream in their lifetime; 68 percent say they have achieved or will achieve the American Dream, and 54 percent believe they will be better off 10 years from now.
Thankfully, there have been recent examples of individuals achieving the American Dream right in front of our eyes. "Only in America is my story possible." Barack Obama would say many times on the campaign trail, retelling his story of being raised by single mother (his Kenyan father having abandoned them when he was 2), but through hard work, determination and the resiliency so characteristic of the American spirit-rose from his underprivileged childhood to earn an Ivy League education; win election as an Illinois State Senator, then U.S. Senator before becoming the first African-American U..S president in the nation’s history.
So too with Sonia Sotomayor, a Puerto Rican, raised in a housing project in the Bronx, N.Y.by a single mother (her father died when she was nine) only to become editor of the Yale Law Review, later appointed to the federal bench by H.W. Bush, and in August, 2009 was confirmed the first Hispanic justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
And it took the death of Steve Jobs, age 56, co-founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of Apple Inc., to realize just how much this Silicon Valley native achieved in such a short period of time. Jobs, as is widely known, was the brainchild of the iphone, ipad, and other revolutionary digital devices who achieved success by dint of his creative ingenuity, despite his humble beginnings. In his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, Jobs told the graduates after dropping out of Reed College (Portland, Ore) in 1972 (because he felt he was draining his parents’ finances), ``I didn't have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends' rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple.’’
Unfortunately, individual success stories like President Obama, justice Sotomayor, and Mr. Jobs-inspiring as they might be-are still rare, the exception rather than the rule in a country that is beginning to lose its exceptionalism that once was the hallmark of the country. More and more, it seems, Americans are dependent on government if they hope to shovel themselves out of their economic plight.
The Pew survey additionally reported that as many of 83 percent of respondents want the government to either provide opportunities for the poor and middle class to improve their economic situations, prevent them from falling behind or both.; a sentiment, interesting enough, that had bi-partisan support with 91 percent of Democrats, 84 percent of independents and 73 percent of Republicans agreeing.
And yet all Americans seem to witness day after day, week after week is a dysfunctional government in Washington, unable to develop bipartisanship in passing bills when the country needs them the most; only compounding citizens’ loss of faith in government, and making them feel all the more powerless in changing the financial disorder in their lives.
As Alex Keyssar, professor of History and Social Policy at Harvard University tells me, the biggest fear Americans have is ``that the system is structured in such a way that an individual can’t solve his or her own problem through their own initiative or find their own answers.''
October 17, 2011
Web Sites to Keep in Mind
John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development (Rutgers University)
Economic Mobility Project (Pew Charitable Trusts)
Roper Public Opinion Archives (The Mood of America)
Center for the Study of the American Dream (Xavier University)
Poverty Highlights (U.S. Census Bureau)