American Dream

American Dream
Date: 2020
From: Gale Opposing Viewpoints Online Collection
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 1,729 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1340L
Full Text:
The American Dream refers to a common aspiration among Americans to improve their lives. Though the American Dream is often framed as a singular concept, the idea can mean different things to different people at different times. One popular definition involves a desire to achieve material success, typically represented by home ownership. Other definitions depend on achieving more than one’s parents and providing one’s children with opportunities to achieve even more. For many people abroad, the United States represents a land of opportunity where people can exercise their rights freely and enjoy greater social mobility than in other countries.
A recurring tenet of the American Dream is that material success can be achieved through hard work. This idea suggests that the US economic system is fair and society rewards people based on their effort and individual merit. Such beliefs, however, do not reflect the realities of the US economy, wherein a wide set of variables can influence what a person can accomplish. For some Americans, the goal of the American Dream is to create a country where everyone has access to the same opportunities.
Though the accomplishments of the civil rights movement and other social justice campaigns have helped remove some barriers to social mobility, some economists argue that achieving the American Dream has become more difficult for some people and remains an impossibility for many. Further, many Americans believe that working hard and obeying the rules do not guarantee success. A 2019 Gallup poll found that 70 percent of US adults believed the American Dream was achievable; however 29 percent thought it was unattainable. This disillusionment was especially strong among women under 50 years old (42 percent), Democrats (38 percent), nonwhites (37 percent), and people making less than $40,000 annually (37 percent).
Main Ideas
o People may hold different definitions of the American Dream, but the concept generally involves the ability of Americans to improve their lives through hard work.
o The American Dream is often associated with professional success and wealth accumulation. College education and home ownership are frequently cited as elements of the American Dream.
o Though the United States is often talked about as a land of equal opportunity, many variables can make the American Dream more difficult to achieve for some individuals and groups. A significant portion of the US population believes it is unattainable.
o Historian James Truslow Adams popularized the term “The American Dream” in the 1930s with an essay contending that happiness and success could more easily be achieved in the United States than in Europe.
o Following World War II, the US economy grew substantially. Federal housing programs, suburban sprawl, and other developments of the twentieth century contributed to a housing boom.
o The Great Recession of the early twenty-first century resulted in many Americans losing their jobs and their homes. The economic disruption also led many Americans to delay life milestones, such as marriage and purchasing a home.
Origins of the American Dream
The conceptual origins of the American Dream lay in the European Enlightenment, a philosophical movement that began in the 1600s and ended around the same time that the United States secured its independence. Enlightenment thinkers opposed aristocracy and placed a high value on individual liberty. These sentiments inspired many of the founders of the United States and helped shape the country’s early vision. Though the term “American Dream” did not become popularized until the twentieth century, a belief that all Americans should be free to prosper from their own hard work appears early in US history. The idea became part of the national ethos, as can be seen in the opening of the Declaration of Independence, in which Thomas Jefferson asserted that governments should not infringe upon people’s rights to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” The text paraphrased a popular Enlightenment idea that everyone had a right to own property and pursue greater accumulation of wealth.
Historians have credited the geographic landscape of the United States with helping shape its national character, particularly the sense that the country represents a land of opportunity. When European settlers and later immigrants arrived in the Americas, the land was neither densely populated nor heavily developed. Without an established system of landed aristocracy, the vast country provided many new arrivals with their first opportunity to own land. Securing this land, however, often involved the forced displacement of Indigenous populations.
Throughout the nineteenth century, politicians framed the nation’s westward expansion as manifest destiny, or the country’s sacred mission to annex the wilderness. This expansion, however, created questions about the nation’s character. The push westward led to the relocation and massacre of many Indigenous peoples and forced the question of whether the institution of slavery should expand into these new territories.
The United States has historically sought to cast itself as a beacon of hope for foreigners seeking to improve their lives. Though the term “American Dream” may have appeared previously, historians generally credit historian James Truslow Adams with coining the phrase in his 1931 treatise The Epic of America. Published during the Great Depression (1929–1933), the book presented an optimistic assessment of the country’s situation, arguing that a prosperous and happy life could more easily be attained in the United States than in Europe. The idea that success could be achieved regardless of social station was central to Adams’s concept. Adams characterized this American Dream as both practical and aspirational, suggesting that Americans could one day enjoy greater equality, opportunity, and freedom. He argued that Europe’s entrenched class system placed it at a disadvantage, compared to the United States, when pursuing a more harmonious social order.
Critical Thinking Questions
o How have European intellectual traditions contributed to the collective understanding of the American Dream?
o In what ways do you think Americans in the twenty-first century perceive the American Dream differently than previous generations? Explain your answer.
o Do you think material success is an essential component of the American Dream? Why or why not?
Association with the Single-Family Home
The US economy emerged from the Great Depression due in part to an expansion of government programs as well as the country’s involvement in World War II (1939–1945), during which industrial productivity and corporate profits doubled. Many economic recovery programs created before the war aimed to improve construction standards and make homebuying easier, including the establishment of such agencies as the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, the Federal Housing Administration, and the US Housing Authority. Unlike Europe and East Asia, the United States did not need to rebuild infrastructure destroyed by the war. The war led to a boom in new building, including public housing designed specifically to meet the needs of the country’s expanding defense industry as workers around the country migrated to areas that had become centers of military production. Following the war, the federal government made it easier for some veterans to secure preferential mortgages for buying homes and low-interest loans for starting business through the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly referred to as the GI Bill. The act also helped veterans receive assistance for higher education. These programs improved social mobility for many Americans. However, benefits were not equally available to everyone, particularly people of color.
In the 1950s, Congress passed several laws approving over $40 billion of federal funds to develop the national highway system. Coupled with postwar prosperity, this spurred a dramatic increase in car ownership; only 60 percent of Americans owned cars in 1940, but 80 percent owned cars twenty years later. The highway system also encouraged the growth of suburban communities, in which people who worked in urban areas could own single-family homes and commute to their jobs. Large suburban housing developments implemented assembly-line–style construction methods, enabling communities to quickly emerge outside of metropolitan areas.
At this time, the American Dream became synonymous with homeownership. However, official policies maintained by banks and federal agencies typically made securing mortgages much more difficult for people of color than for white homebuyers. Federal and state lawmakers sought to address housing discrimination several times in the 1960s through several initiatives, including the Rumford Fair Housing Act of 1963, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Though such laws prohibit discrimination, racial disparities in home ownership persist. According to the US Census Bureau, 64.6 percent of American adults owned their own home in 2019, including 73.3 percent of non-Hispanic white Americans, 47.5 percent of Hispanic or Latinx Americans, and 42.1 percent of black Americans.
In the 1990s, several financial institutions began targeting low-income families with predatory housing loans. These loans, commonly referred to as subprime loans, often involved excessive fees, high interest rates, and unfavorable payment requirements. Though these loans brought borrowers with low credit scores closer to achieving the American Dream, each loan carried significant risk that the borrower would not be able to meet the loan’s unreasonable terms. The proliferation of these risky loans, along with falling home prices, ultimately led, in 2007, to the financial catastrophe commonly referred to as the subprime mortgage crisis, which contributed to the largest global economic downturn since the Great Depression.
The Great Recession (2007–2009), which followed the subprime mortgage crisis, caused many people to lose their homes or livelihoods. Many homeowners saw the values of their homes plummet, preventing them from moving without incurring substantial financial loss. The economic anxieties that arose from the crisis exposed potential flaws in the American Dream, causing people to question previously held assumptions about what financial success entailed and how to achieve it. The disruption of the financial crisis caused many members of the Millennial generation (those born between 1981 and 1997) to delay life events such as marriage, having children, and buying a home. While home prices have risen since the Great Recession, wages have largely remained stagnant. Rising rents, student loan debt, and other financial challenges have made saving for a down payment more difficult.
The Millennial generation became more financially stable at the end of the 2010s, increasing demand for homes. However, the US housing market experienced an inventory shortage, and the decreased supply led to higher prices. Some people have chosen to continue to rent to avoid the costs of maintaining a home, noting that the costs of repairs, upkeep, and taxes usually covered by a landlord become additional responsibilities with home ownership. Economists have frequently questioned the value of homes as financial assets since they do not generate revenue unless being used commercially, and require constant attention to retain their initial value.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2021 Gale, a Cengage Company
Source Citation (MLA 9th Edition)
“American Dream.” Gale Opposing Viewpoints Online Collection, Gale, 2020. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints,

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