The American Dream in 2010

The “American Dream” resonates around the world. My father, like so many immigrants, lived it – arriving in the United States with next to nothing following World War II, facing discrimination and hardship, yet able to work his way up in a low-paying but secure job, buy a house and a car, put his kids through college and retire with a decent pension.

While the phrase “American Dream” is a recent one, the idea of self-betterment has a long history in the United States. The hope of improving one’s status, pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, resonates deeply among all strata of the US population. But does that dream still exist in the Obama era?
The economic downturn of the past few years has had an enormous influence on mobility in the US, changing both realities on the ground and the way Americans view those realities. Transformations that have been in process since at least the 1980s, such as the vastly widening income gap, have been thrown into sharp relief by the crisis. While Obama may actually be implementing policies that will help to restore a semblance of faith in the American dream, he seems unable to stem the tide of changing perceptions in the short run.

Americans, of course, begin with a very different view of government, and their relationship to it, than Europeans.  Suspicion of government and reliance on individual effort are fundamental American principles. When they face difficulties, Americans don’t generally look to government, but instead blame their own insufficient efforts, on the assumption that it is up to the individual to take full advantage of the opportunities the United States supplies. This is often applied to others – other people’s poverty is seen as a result of laziness or other cultural weaknesses, rather than structural factors. But to a surprising degree, Americans apply this standard to themselves as well, often to what seems to outsiders as illogical extremes.

This view of government can be inconsistent and even dishonest: some government entitlements, such as Social Security, Medicare (health insurance for the elderly), and veterans’ benefits, have been so widely accepted that it’s sometimes forgotten they ARE government programs -- hence the widely-reported moment during the health care battle when elderly protesters called on the government to “keep its hands off” Medicare benefits. And states that most vocally tout their self reliance, such as Alaska, often benefit disproportionately from government largesse. But its power as part of the fundamental story of the US is undeniable.

The downturn has affected the debate on government’s role, and thus the related question of the American dream, in sometimes paradoxical ways. For native-born Americans, the simple formula that emerged especially  after World War II — that education and hard work would allow each generation to attain a better standard of living  than the last, and permit workers to enjoy a solid middle-class lifestyle — no longer works. The middle and lower classes have been slipping for years, at least since the cuts in government, reductions in business regulation, and slashed upper-class tax rates of the Reagan years. While some of the change has simply involved the rich getting richer, structural changes have also affected the ability of lower income classes to improve their status. The kinds of steady, lifetime jobs with benefits that once allowed a single person to support a family have become scarce. Outsourcing has eliminated domestic jobs, not only in manufacturing, but now more and more in the service industries. Education has suffered massively from cuts, and the cost of higher education, in most cases a necessity for moving up the ladder, has skyrocketed. Minorities, in particular, have found their progress slipping. Working parents are now the norm; while the opportunity to work was of course an important step forward for women, the necessity for two paychecks has placed great stress on families. Studies show that some European countries have pulled ahead of the US in indicators of social mobility.

While these developments are not new, the latest economic crisis may have affected not only realities, but also the perception of those realities. Americans have finally had to face the fact that the traditional doors may no longer be open to them — indeed, that they may no longer be able to achieve, or to cling to, the trappings of middle-class status. Right now, many Americans, except for the most wealthy, are simply trying to keep their heads above water; they’re not dreaming. The hope for a better future that has fueled US progress seems to be in short supply.

That paucity of hope, of course, is part of what is fueling the Tea Party’s rage. But it’s a particularly American rage. On the one hand, Americans do want the government to intervene to help them, to bolster the economy and create jobs -- essentially to lay the groundwork that would enable them to recapture a semblance of the American Dream. Yet the traditional suspicion of government has led many to direct their anger at the Obama administration’s attempts to ease the crisis. Aside from the various bailouts, which have garnered the most attention and anger, the administration has pushed through stimulus packages that will build and improve desperately needed infrastructure over the long term, reformed the crucial process of obtaining college loans, and, with health care, endeavored to ease one of the biggest expenses for the middle and lower classes. Nevertheless, government, paradoxically, remains the target for a vocal portion of the American population (admittedly abetted, financially and ideologically, by entrenched interest groups). The lack of a clear response to this anger from the Obama administration may be leading other Americans to despair of government solutions and retreat into apathy. It remains to be seen how these responses will play out politically in the midterm elections.

Of all Americans, it’s immigrants who are still most able to take advantage of the American dream. For those fleeing economic or political hardship, the US continues to offer opportunities and the chance to do better; hard work can still pay off.  This may explain some of the anger currently directed at immigrants, especially Mexicans.  As Americans begin to doubt the power of their own American dream, they are increasingly scapegoating those still able to benefit from it.

(with thanks to Jeremiah Riemer)

Belinda Cooper is Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute and a co-founder of the Citizenship and Security Program at the World Policy Institute and an adjunct professor at New York University's Center for Global Affairs.