Is the American Dream Dying?
- A Dream on the Decline
- The Dream Gap
In this election season, politicians of both parties celebrate the American Dream of unlimited opportunity for the poor who are willing to work hard and play by the rules. Since launching his political career, Arnold Schwarzenegger has presented his own highly unusual route to fame and fortune as proof that the American Dream remains a vital reality. But the uniqueness of Arnold’s particular immigrant success story raises the obvious question--how many people can realistically aspire to become the world’s greatest bodybuilder or Hollywood’s most successful action hero? In earlier generations, each immigrant millionaire represented thousands of others who had achieved middle class security, but Arnold represents only himself. Perhaps, his ultimate role is to symbolize an American Dream that survives only for the few with extraordinary talents.
There are signs that indicate the Dream is on the decline. For the last few decades, the distribution of income and wealth in the United States has become more unequal so that those living in poverty have even a smaller share of resources as they struggle to achieve mobility. At the same time, higher education and technical skills have become more central for success across a wide range of occupations. A generation ago, a high school dropout could become an auto mechanic, but now success in that trade -- and many others -- requires technological expertise and access to expensive equipment. And yet, the financial barriers to higher education and technical skills have grown more daunting; reports indicate that the children of the poor are less and less likely to get the advanced training that they need.
There are also studies showing that the United States now has lower rates of mobility out of poverty than countries like Germany. Not only are children at much higher risk of growing up in poverty in the United States, but more of them are doomed to remain in poverty. Think of the seriousness of this reversal if it is now better to be born poor in the Old World than in the New. To be sure, it will take much additional research to prove that the American Dream has moved offshore, but in the meantime, there is other evidence that the Dream is in trouble.