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Is the American Dream still attainable?

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October 01, 2012 06:57 pm


Every time I hear the phrase “the American Dream,” I’m taken back to reading The Great Gatsby in my ninth-grade English literature class. At 15 years old, the concept of the American Dream seemed like an academic pursuit, rather than a practical, lifelong one of attainment.

Now, as a 20-something so-called “young professional,” Gatsby’s struggle to achieve status and fame and Daisy’s to be a member of the elite class is more than fiction; it’s relevant to my life and to the lives of millions of Americans. The American Dream is at the center of my burgeoning career and adult life: can I rise above my upbringing, pulling myself up “by the bootstraps,” to achieve a comfortable, secure middle-class life and retirement for myself and any future family I may have?

According to new research from Public Agenda and GALEWiLL Center for Opportunity and Progress, released today in conjunction with an expert panel discussion at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., the hard work and education I’ve relied on may not be enough.

The report, “The Invisible Dream: Creating a New Conversation About the American Dream,” analyzes public opinion from 2,000 surveyed Americans. They found that Americans tend to agree on what it takes to achieve the Dream: 86 percent believe strong work ethic will lead to success and 77 percent believe it lies in having good schools.

Respondents reacted positively every time they were asked about the impact of education on achieving the American Dream. When asked who is more likely to succeed – a five year old with good healthcare and poor schools, or one with good schools and no healthcare, a whopping 81 percent said the child with no healthcare but good schools will do better.

And yet, when it came time for the panel discussion, Isabel Sawhill, co-director of the Center on Children and Families and the Budgeting for National Priorities Project at the Brookings Institution, noted that when you look at the statistics of middle-class attainment compared to expectations revealed in this report, the American public believes it can pull itself up by the bootstraps far more than it does in reality. “Maybe it’s good they have these beliefs,” Sawhill said.

If Americans believe that education and hard work is the way to achieve success, but those qualities aren’t translating into success, what is the disconnect? The expert panelists suggested that some contributing factors to the decline in achievement rates of the American Dream are lack of access, particularly for disadvantaged populations, slow-rising minimum wage, the rising costs of higher education and insufficient retirement funds, due in part to the disappearance of pensions.

“We need a better national conversation on the American Dream and what it takes to achieve it,” Bob McKinnon, Executive Director of the GALEWiLL Center said. “Americans have a strong consensus on what the foundation of the American Dream is. How can we build on that foundation to make sure that as many people as possible can overcome challenge and access the Dream?”

As American viewpoints on the American Dream shift and evolve, notably in the face of tough economic times, what can we do as policymakers and educators to ensure that the next generation of students continues to believe in the very thing they’re dreaming about while reading The Great Gatsby in their literature classes?

How has the national conversation about the American Dream changed? Will it impact this election? Do you feel as though you have access to the American Dream? Have you attained it?

We’d love to hear your thoughts, stories and ideas in the comments section.

For the full report, please visit


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