What the American Dream is, and what it isn't

By Ben Luthi, For the Deseret News

Published: Wed, Aug. 6, 2014, 9:50 a.m. MDT

 Girl holding up two American flags at park

Girl holding up two American flags at park

(Wavebreakmedia Ltd, Getty Images/Wavebreak Media)

According to a recent analysis done by USA Today, the American Dream carries a price tag of $130,000 a year. The annual breakdown includes essentials like groceries at $12,659, a 4WD SUV and other associated vehicle costs at $11,039. Extras include things like vacations, entertainment, internet and cellphone for a combined total of $17,009. Based on the U.S. Census Bureau, as quoted in the USA Today article, only 16 million U.S. households — one in eight altogether — earned enough to qualify.

The analysis seems to agree with the majority of Americans who see the American Dream as something that is becoming increasingly out of reach. A study performed by LearnVest and Chase found that only 43 percent of respondents felt that the American Dream can be achieved in the country’s current economic state. A separate poll done by CNNMoney seems to concur, showing that 63 percent of young adults, age 18 to 34, believe that the dream of having more wealth than their parents is unattainable.

If these numbers are true, the simple conclusion to make would be to declare the American Dream dead — a fleeting delusion mired by high unemployment and a widening income gap. But it's important to note that the American Dream hasn't always been about material wealth.

The original American Dream

The term “American Dream” was first coined by James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book "The Epic of America." To quote his definition at length, he referred to it as:

“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. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

Based on Adams’ definition, material wealth was more of an unintentional byproduct of the opportunity offered in this country. Indeed, the American Dream, as novelist Thomas Wolfe said, is “to every man, regardless of his birth, his shining, golden opportunity … the right to live, to work, to be himself and to become whatever thing his manhood and his vision can combine to make him.”

Are expectations too high?

While the overall shift toward materialism isn’t surprising per se, the current attitude is enough to make one wonder if Americans are taking their opportunities for granted. To be sure, the current economic conditions don’t provide the same opportunities as were available prior to the financial crisis. But consider that Adams first introduced the idea of the American Dream just two years after Black Tuesday hit Wall Street, sparking the beginning of the Great Depression that saw more than 5,000 banks fail and unemployment peak at 25 percent.

It makes one wonder if the rise of consumerism and its personified “Joneses” have provided the American people with unhealthy expectations of what it means to be truly happy. Popular culture clings to the lives of the rich and the famous, turning the likes of reality television personalities into role models not so much for their redeeming qualities, but for their flashy lifestyles, leading many to conclude that unless they’ve hit it big, they will never “have it all.”

In Psychology Today, Lauren Sandler suggests that “the American Dream has become an American Expectation — a version of happiness achieved by entitlement and equation: Two fat incomes plus a two-car garage plus two master-bathroom sinks plus two-point-something kids equals one happy family.” Sandler also mentions that countries that generally rank higher in terms of happiness — specifically Sweden and Denmark — don’t have the same expectation that money equals happiness.

Restoring the American Dream

Struggle has always been a part of the American life. The history of our nation has been defined by it. The Puritans who sought religious freedom and the revolutionaries who fought to maintain that freedom set that precedent. As popular culture attempts to redefine the American Dream, the evolution invariably moves toward comfort and convenience as the alpha and omega.

But it won’t be long before we realize that this version of the American Dream is the dream that has failed Americans, not its predecessor. Americans would do well to focus on the original ideal that offers opportunities, not handouts; views earning the fruits of one’s labors as a gift, not an inconvenience; and is no respecter of a person’s background, personality or circumstance.

It is true that several facets of the American system are broken. But as long as its citizens believe in the dream that was gifted to them by their forefathers, there will always be a chance of redemption.

1. Open Minded Mormon
Everett, 00,
Aug. 6, 2014

The problem is this --

America has transformed into everything the Old World Aristocrats had...

A tiny, very wealthy, 1%, powerful, and privileged few --
a much larger, 99%, poorer, and harder working poor.

The American Dream was the new MIDDLE Class,
that is rapidly disintegrating back into the back pages of 20th century history.

2. John Charity Spring
Back Home in Davis County, UT,
Aug. 6, 2014

"I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know . . . how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing--perfectly willing to lat down all my joys in this life . . . to pay the debt."
--Sullivan Ballot

If more Americans honored this value, the dream would be a reality.

3. lket
Bluffdale, UT,
Aug. 6, 2014

the other coment is so right on. the worst thing is housing is starting to be out of reach for a larger amount of the poulation, and aparments are just as much money.

4. Gildas
Aug. 6, 2014

I appreciate this article as I have often wondered what "the American dream" was and, yes, it did seem to mean having a lot of money. The originator of the phrase seemed to have in mind something more inclusive and noble: opportunity and personal development or, in other words, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I can concur with that.

5. patriot
Cedar Hills, UT,
Aug. 6, 2014

The American Dream is dead. Obama and his secular progressives have already had the funeral to their delight. Today Americans have to re-chart their course with lower expectations and opportunites. Look around you and what you see is the independent and self reliant America being replaced with the welfare state and when the welfare state is complete there will be NO home ownership or even private property except for the wealthy and the poltical elite. Take present day California as your model.

what to teach your kids? I think the only thing you can do is to circle the wagons and perhaps have a family plan which will provide opportunites for your kids because the ability of the American nation to do it is history....sadly.

"Ask NOT what you can do for your country but instead ask what your country can give you for free" Barack Obama in a nutshell...