American Dream is dead

Marketplace Staff Aug 31, 2006

SCOTT JAGOW: The phrase “American dream” was first coined and printed in 1931. Smack in the middle of the Great Depression. People were talking about what Americans had lost, the sense of hope that hard work will eventually pay off. Well, with Labor Day coming up, I’m seeing a lot of articles about that phrase, the American dream. A lot of people believe we’re missing something again. Commentator Clive Crook has these thoughts.

CLIVE CROOK: Americans feel that everybody has a chance to make it — wherever you started, however disadvantaged. And they think, if you make it, you should be allowed to keep it. There are winners and losers in life. That’s meritocracy, that’s the American dream. The U.S. admires ambition and rewards it.

Partly, this is good. It is why the American economy is so productive and innovative. But there’s a problem. The idea that America is the best place in the world to start out poor, so long as you are willing to work hard, no longer seems to be true.

One way of proving that is to ask how accurately your family’s income when you were growing up predicted what your own would be. If the American dream were alive, your family’s income would not predict your own that well: In a meritocractic society, the children of the poor can get rich by working hard, and the children of the rich fall back if they are idle.

Well, on that measure, America is now less the land of opportunity than France, than Germany, than Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway and Denmark. The only other rich economy that the U.S. outscores in this respect is — you guessed it — the UK. Abolish the estate tax and America will be a serious contender for the bottom of the opportunity league.

How did that happen? Education. America’s failing public schools are leaving the poor stranded.

So, we ought to stop talking about the American dream. You couldn’t call it the French dream, that sounds indecent.

Maybe the Canadian dream. Hard to believe, but the chances of starting with nothing and ending up rich are now higher north of the border.

JAGOW: Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for National Journal.

As a nonprofit news organization, our future depends on listeners like you who believe in the power of public service journalism.

Your investment in Marketplace helps us remain paywall-free and ensures everyone has access to trustworthy, unbiased news and information, regardless of their ability to pay.

Donate today — in any amount — to become a Marketplace Investor. Now more than ever, your commitment makes a difference.