What Is the American Dream?

The American Dream Explained

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The Balance / Josh Seong

The American dream is the idea that every U.S. citizen and documented immigrant is bestowed with the equal opportunity to achieve upward mobility and success.

Is the American dream still possible? Was it ever possible? Learn about the origins of the American dream, how it has changed over time, why some people still believe in it, and if it will ever be possible for everyone to achieve.

Definitions and Examples of the American Dream

The American dream is based on the belief that Americans have the right to find their path to economic prosperity, and the government does not stand in the way of this pursuit. Unlike some other countries, you are not required to follow your father’s profession. Your destiny is not legally determined at birth by caste, religion, or gender. There is still discrimination, but the U.S. Constitution protects your right to pursue a better life.   

While not everyone will achieve wealth, that's not necessarily the goal of the American dream. The idea of the American dream is that it is supposed to be an individual goal based on your values and what you hold important, but there are some common goals when pursuing the American dream.

  • To own a home of one's choosing in a safe and secure neighborhood.
  • To have a stable job that pays fairly or to own a business that makes a profit and contributes to the economy.
  • To have a family that you are able to take care of financially, emotionally, physically, and spiritually.

The American dream is cited for the reason that immigrants from all over the world have been coming to the U.S. since its inception and why they still seek a place here today.

When someone seems to have it all, including a well-paying job they love, a loving family they can provide for, a home they are proud of and can afford, and extra money to enjoy vacations and the other events that make life enjoyable, even if they aren't wealthy, they are said to be living the American dream.

French historian Alexis de Tocqueville toured the U.S. in the 19th century, and in his book "Democracy in America," he said the American Dream is "the charm of anticipated success."

How the American Dream Works

The American dream concept says that while upward mobility and financial security are possible for everyone, you can't just sit by and expect to achieve it without putting any effort into it.

  • You must vote for elected officials that will promise to protect the U.S. Constitution and the rights, privileges, and responsibilities it affords every citizen.
  • You must abide by the laws of the state and country.
  • You must be a legal citizen of the country, whether born in the U.S. or as an immigrant who is legally allowed to be in the U.S.
  • You must get an education. While that used to just mean graduating from college, it now means also graduating from college in many cases.
  • You must choose a career, find a job, and work hard at that job. Show up on time, stay late when you have to, get along with your co-workers, get along with your boss, and do a good job according to the best practices of your profession.

According to the American dream, when you do all of these things, you should be able to obtain the money to purchase a home. You should be able to have and care for a family. You are free to pursue your goals, unencumbered by laws or a government that stands in your way.

At first, the American dream was only extended to white property owners. As the country changed and it was realized that not everyone starts out on equal footing to achieve the American dream, some U.S. presidents attempted to level the playing field.

  • President Franklin D. Roosevelt outlined an Economic Bill of Rights in 1944, defining the pursuit of happiness as decent housing, a good job, education, and health care.
  • President Harry S. Truman's "post-war social contract" included the GI Bill, providing government-funded college degrees for returning veterans. Truman's Fair Deal expanded the dream to include entitlement: If you worked hard and played by the rules, the government should guarantee financial security, education, health care, and a home.
  • President Lyndon B. Johnson promoted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ending segregation in the schools and protecting workers from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton supported the dream of homeownership. President Barack Obama supported the legal benefits of the marriage contract regardless of sexual orientation. Obama furthered FDR's idea that everyone should have access to affordable health care.

In his 1931 book, "Epic of America," historian James Truslow Adams first linked the phrase "American Dream" with a modern concept of the term. He wrote, "The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement."

Notable Happenings

Several factors are challenging the American Dream's continued viability, including:

  • Low mobility: The U.S. has lower rates of income mobility than other developed countries. It scores lower than France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway, and Denmark.
  • Government debt: The U.S. has $28 trillion in federal debt and $4.2 trillion in consumer debt. Combined, that's much more than the U.S. gross domestic product of $22 trillion.
  • Climate change: Some people feel their vision of the American dream is threatened by solutions like the Green New Deal. But if nothing is done, global warming will slow growth. Between 2007 and 2017, extreme weather, health risks, sea-level rise, and food inflation have cost the U.S. government $350 billion.

Some point to social trends as proof that the American Dream has died, including epidemics of obesity, child abuse, and drug addiction.

The American cultural mosaic generates more ideas than a small, homogeneous population would. America’s success may also be attributed in part to having the benefits of cultural diversity.

Alternatives to the American Dream

Global economic conditions have indeed changed. But the founders of the country never intended the American dream to provide world dominance and the guarantee of a good life. The Declaration of Independence says nothing about a particular lifestyle and doesn't define how happiness should look.

The founders sought to ensure that everyone has equal opportunity to pursue their vision of happiness. They promoted faith in private free enterprise as a way to pursue that happiness. All people have an equal and inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of their happiness. Federal law protects this right.

Some people are turning to a new interpretation of the American dream that better reflects the country's values for which it was named.

In her book "The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream," Courtney E. Martin writes that Americans should "return to some of the most basic questions," including:

  • What is enough money?
  • How do we want to spend our finite energy and attention?
  • What makes us feel accountable and witnessed?

Martin suggests we should aspire to create "a life you can be genuinely proud of, an 'examined life' (in the words of dead Greek guys), a life that you are challenged by, a life that makes you giddy, that sometimes surprises you, a life that you love."

The American dream will continue to evolve in response to the changing world. The right to pursue the dream and the right to disagree about what that means is what makes the American dream powerful.

Key Takeaways

  • The American dream is the belief that people of the U.S. are given the equal opportunity to achieve upward mobility and success on their own terms.
  • The American dream is different for many, but most of the time includes a safe home that one owns, a job that pays enough to live a healthy and secure life, and a family to enjoy those things with.
  • There have been efforts over the history of the country to make the American dream pursuable for more people, including African Americans and women.
  • Some current events challenge the possibility of achieving the American dream in the future.
  • Americans should embrace change and decide what the American dream means for them personally.