“America is a nation composed almost entirely of immigrants” (Loupe & Ojeda 1). The arrival of immigrants began with the European colonization of the New World from 1492 till 1763, and immigration from various nations continued through the following centuries. The myth of America as a classless society is underscored by another myth, that of meritocracy. Financial success and wealth is considered as a reflection of a person’s merit, and Americans believe that all are equally capable of achieving financial success through their effort and hard work. The American dream is that America is the land of opportunity that all can equally avail of; with immense possibilities and opportunities for upward mobility. It is closely related to the myth of meritocracy that those who work hard “will enjoy and profit from these opportunities” (Loupe & Ojeda 1).
Thesis Statement: The purpose of this paper is to investigate the American dream, and the myths related to the concept.
The American Dream
The American dream includes not only the hope for a brighter future and a formula for success, but also knowledge of outcomes from the fulfillment of the dream. The outcomes include home ownership, improving life chances for children which is today denoted as sending them to college, “having a chance to get rich, and achieve a secure and comfortable retirement” (McNamee & Miller 9). The prospects for making the American dream come true have declined in recent years, leading to American workers feeling pessimistic about the future.
Social Mobility and Economic Success
The American dream of the promised land of opportunities denotes the possibility and opportunity for social mobility. Economic prosperity is considered to result in upward mobility, with inceasing income leading to a better position in society. Social and economic mobility are mutually related, and both are closely related to income. The American dream is mainly based on the promise of mobility in the economic ladder. According to Browne (p.1), “the ability of American families to move up or down the income ladder within a lifetime or from one generation to the next, is a unifying and core tenet of the American dream”. Since opportunity is a core element in social mobility and financial success, education is a determining factor for getting opportunities. “Education is often considered to be at the heart of the social class equation” (Steinberg 269). In a society that values and rewards knowledge and associates it with power, education plays a crucial role in achieving social and economic success.
Individualism as the Basis of the American Dream
The American dream is founded on an emphasis on the individual and on individualism. Significantly, individualism as the basis of the American dream is deeply rooted in the “religious, political, economic, and cultural experience of America as a nation of immigrants” (McNamee & Miller 4). Toqueville defines individualism as “a mature and calm feeling which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellow creatures” (p.118). He particularly distinguished individualism from egotism; and linked individualism to equality and the absence of aristocracy. Thus, in America people were free to achieve, not through hereditary title, but on their own merit. Therefore the emerging concept of the American dream included both political freedom from tyranny, and also economic freedom to achieve success through one’s own merits (McNamee & Miller 7).
The Myth of the American Dream
During the European colonization of America, the indigenous people of America were eliminated, displaced or assimilated, while the imported immigrants who formed other minority groups were exploited for their labor to “develop the vast resources of America, generate incredible wealth, build its infrastructure and establish cities, towns and industries that would be administered by the dominant Anglogroups” (Loupe & Ojeda 1). According to Steinberg (p.269), ‘historical landmarks like the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, and even the U.S. Constitution bluntly ignore the role of ethnic groups other than white Europeans”. Further, there is no acknowledgment of elements such as slavery, poverty and other injustices that could hint at a discriminatory or class-based society.
An aspect of the American dream is that the future prospects of each new generation would be better than those of the previous one. Although increasing numbers of Americans are getting a college education, the costs of higher education have been increasing at a greater rate than family income or cost of living. This has led to greater underemployment with college graduates taking up jobs such as waiting tables, and credential inflation with employers requiring higher levels of education for positions whose job requirements remained the same (McNamee & Miller 11).
Further, for most children in the United States, who are proportionately more than those from other comparable countries such as France, Italy and Britain, family economic background was the most important factor in influencing adult income. In all these countries, children born into a poor family had lower chances of rising economically to a higher level (Browne 1). According to Hochschild (p.4), “how poor and rich blacks and poor and rich whites vary in their views of the American dream tells us how immobile the racial divide in America really is”. The ideology of the American dream forms a basis for understanding the relationship among the races and between race and class, which in turn ascertain the meaning of the ideology.
Some studies have found that mobility has declined in the United States. The levels are strikingly low among black Americans who have been more prone to experience downward mobility than white children who are tend to experience upward mobility in adulthood. Growing up in a high poverty neighborhood “increases the risk of experiencing downward mobility and explains a sizeable portion of the black-white downward mobility gap” (Browne 3). The low mobility also impacts high rate of male unemployment and of relationship breakdown. However, the latter is true for all Americans who have an uncommonly high rate of divorce. Further, the labor of immigrant groups has been exploited. They are used politically as a scapegoat by politicians to avoid addressing the need for political, economic and social reforms, and to maintain the subordinate positions of minority groups (Loupe & Ojeda 1).
America is significantly behind other advanced countries in health care, education, crime, civil liberties, racial and ethnic equality, environmental protection, and crucial elements of the economy including continued persistence of poverty. The gap between the United States and other comparative countries extends to other areas also, including press freedom and democratic representation. Thus, Sieber (p.52) argues that the traditional American dream has been replaced by a full-fledged American Myth to a great extent. The nation has to evaluate the situation accurately, and meet the challenges, towards achieving the well-being of future generations.
This paper has highlighted the American dream, and the myths related to the ideology. Opportunities for social mobility was believed to lead to economic success; while individualism was considered to form the foundation of the American dream, providing the freedom for each individual to pursue his dream and achieve high levels of success in it. Future prospects of each new generation becoming increasingly better is found to be untrue, since family economic background played a significant role in children’s future financial success. Similarly, increasing costs of higher education and unavailability of suitably advanced levels of jobs, also hindered the upward mobility of minority groups as well as economically lower white Americans. Additionally, persistent discrimination and the deep divides based on class, race and other differences, made the American dream difficult to achieve for most immigrants as well as the economically low citizens of America. The decline in upward mobility is particularly found among the black Americans, which further exacerbates their poverty, unemployment and divorce rates. Thus, the American dream remains a myth for most immigrants to the country.
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