Inner Strength: The American Dream De-Mythologized

Is the American Dream increasingly belied by societal realities?

August 8, 2007

Is the American Dream increasingly belied by societal realities?

The grandest theme of U.S. domestic policy," conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote, is "social mobility." Ours "is a country based on the idea that a person's birth does not determine his or her destiny."

America’s Inner Strength
by Bruce W. Jentleson
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Yet as Brooks acknowledges, while "we may still believe American society is uniquely dynamic, we're deceiving ourselves. It is becoming harder and harder for people to climb the ladder of success."

Increasingly, studies are showing that social mobility in the United States is not what it once was, that only the United Kingdom and South Africa are showing less economic mobility from generation to generation, and that the United States has the highest income inequality among developed nations.

Moreover, the trend lines are headed in the wrong direction. Poverty is at an all-time high. Median family income is falling.

Meanwhile, the top 1% garners a larger share of U.S. national wealth. The wealthiest 300,000 take in almost as much as the bottom 150,000,000.

Whither Horatio Alger? Brooks' policy prescriptions differ from liberal-progressive ones, focusing more on the family than on the role of government, but he is asking the same question.

We have not had such extreme disparities since the pre-Depression go-go 1920s. And all this has been during a period of sustained economic growth.

"The working stiffs," as political analyst Charlie Cook observes, "just don't feel like they're getting ahead, despite the fact that they're working hard."

Some of this is a result of the Bush years. Child poverty has gone up now four years in a row. The jobs created in the 2004-05 recovery paid 21% less than those lost in the 2001-03 recession.

But the trends run deeper. Since the 1970s, job markets have been moving more towards a U-shaped curve of greatest growth at the lowest and highest wage areas. Five of the ten fastest-growing job sectors are classified by the U.S. Department of Labor as low income.

From 1972-2001, even those at the 90th income percentile only averaged 1% growth.

Yet those at the 99th percentile had their incomes grow more than 2 ½ times that rate. For the federal minimum wage to have remained proportional to executive compensation, it would have to be over $23 an hour — instead of under $6.

Nor is it "just" income stats. Greater social heterogeneity is one of the most pervasive aspects of globalization. Almost every country in the world is more ethnically, racially and religiously diverse than in the past.

For the United States to be able to claim to be setting a positive — even if imperfect — example on societal equality and tolerance would be enormously potent.

Instead, we have the Supreme Court trying to turn the clock back a half-century on school integration.

In 1957, when the segregationist governor of Arkansas was blocking integration of the public schools, one of the reasons President Eisenhower sent in the National Guard was concern about how this domestic issue was undermining the United States’ claims that it stood for principle in the Cold War.

Quite a contrast with the message being sent to the world by George Bush's hand-picked chief justice.

Add to this an ugly domestic debate on immigration. What is the world to think of a country in which armed vigilante groups set out to "defend" the border, calling themselves "Minutemen" in the tradition of the Founding Fathers?

In these and other ways, the "land of opportunity" view of the United States — which persisted for awhile, despite highly negative polls on the Iraq war and other foreign policy issues — is eroding.

"Suppose a young person who wanted to leave his or her country asked you to recommended where to go to lead a good life," a Pew poll asked in 16 different countries.

“What country would you recommend?" Only in one (out of 16) countries was the United States the first choice.

Societal myths rarely fully square with facts and history, but they do require a certain validation in reality.

The shattering of the Horatio Alger myth impacts America's appeal as an immigration destination and a societal model.

That, in turn, takes away from the leadership-enhancing credibility that the United States can garner globally if and when it takes steps to increase global respect for U.S. society.

All in all, much needs to be done to change America's global role (see my "America's Global Role After Bush," forthcoming in Survival, the journal of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, Autumn 2007). But foreign policy really does begin at home.

Decreasing the U.S. economy's vulnerability and increasing its competitiveness is less about getting others to change their policies than changing our own.

Enhancing the attractiveness of our U.S. political and societal model is less about public diplomacy projected abroad than public policy focused at home.

We must revitalize the domestic foundations which provide the inner strength needed both to compete and to lead.