Does the American Dream Still Exist?

Hannah Godfrey

For anyone who watched Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention last month, it was evident that the Obama campaign is placing a great deal of emphasis on the traditional concept of the American Dream. The idea that an individual can start off with little and gradually work their way up the economic scale continues, of course, to have great appeal, and in the past was achieved by many Americans. However, with the economy still faltering, the growth in power of large corporations, and poverty at its highest since 1983, is the American Dream still achievable?

With 46.2 million, or 15 percent, of Americans living below the poverty line, according to the US Census Bureau, and with unemployment remaining persistently high, it seems unlikely that most Americans will be able to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” and achieve great economic gains and social mobility[1]. Furthermore, Latinos and African Americans disproportionately suffer from unemployment, with rates above the national average, at 9.9 and 13.4 percent respectively[2].

The American dream remains an attractive proposition for politicians and voters alike. An especially interesting aspect of this election is the two dramatically opposing visions of the American Dream and how to achieve it presented by the two candidates. For President Obama, the government plays a vital role in reducing national poverty, which has indeed been alleviated slightly by the increase in unemployment benefits, and in providing economic growth, helping Americans to help themselves. Romney, in contrast, holds to the typical Republican belief in smaller government which, in theory, will allow business to grow, increase employment and lift people out of poverty.

Theoretically, either or both of these opposing views for the American future may work in kick-starting the American economy. However, in either case, is the American Dream still a relevant aim for American society? The American Dream is rooted in the concept of the frontier society where an immigrant could work to earn enough to buy land, gain political and social standing, and live prosperously. But the American frontier closed in 1890, if we are to believe Frederick Jackson Turner, and since then, the American Dream has gradually lost its relevance in American society[3].

Although Michelle Obama’s speech effectively used the stories of her father and President Obama’s grandmother to illustrate the President’s policies and values, it is hard to believe that for most Americans a strong work ethic will get them all that far. It seems that although America continues to be based on the principles of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and the belief that “all men are created equal”, some continue to be more equal than others. Perhaps it’s time for America to find a new dream?