American Dream: The Myth

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In Retrospect

“I have a dream!” These were the prolific words Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told a captivated crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Monument. The date was August 28, 1963. King invoked many ideals during his speech—freedom, equality and justice for all.

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But one theme that encompassed the entirety of his speech was the “American Dream”, a concept that has been circulating in our culture for as long as anyone can remember. It is the idea that anyone in our society, through hard work, self-reliance and determination, can make it. Dr. King is not alone. Media outlets and our favorite television shows speak about this illustrious idea—no matter who you are in American society, you can become rich as long as you “work hard.” But does this concept really work? Who created this idea of the “American Dream?”

The idea of the American Dream began when Horatio Alger, Jr., a prolific 19th century author, wrote novels that followed the inspirational adventures of impoverished young boys who grew up to become successful men. All of these characters had one thing in common: they went from rags to riches (1). The concepts of the American Dream has since become ingrained within our culture.

There are several overlooked messages about Alger’s works that are not mentioned by modern day society. The first is the content of Alger’s stories. In his books, Alger discusses how children escape from poverty, but he never says they become wealthy. In reality, his novels describe the boys living a “comfortable” lifestyle, meaning they became part of the middle class (2). They never become extraordinarily wealthy, something the modern version of the American Dream emphasizes.

The second message that is often overlooked is the racial disparities in American society. The American Dream has often been used as a denial of racism in our culture, emphasizing that anyone can garner great wealth through determination and courage alone. Throughout most of our country’s history and even into our present day, this has not been the case. Racism and sexism still play a role in hiring decisions and what economic class you ultimately belong to (3).

The term “American Dream” was finally coined by author James Truslow Adams in his book The Epic of America (1931). According to Adams, the American Dream is “a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position." It is this definition that embodies Dr. King’s message of racial equality and equal opportunity for all.

Despite this, the “rags to riches” concept has been heavily criticized, with critics often arguing that only the most exceptional and lucky people can travel this road. In 2003, filmmaker Michael Moore remarked, “So, here's my question: after fleecing the American public and destroying the American dream for most working people, how is it that, instead of being drawn and quartered and hung at dawn at the city gates, the rich got a big wet kiss from Congress in the form of a record tax break, and no one says a word? How can that be? I think it's because we're still addicted to the Horatio Alger fantasy drug. Despite all the damage and all the evidence to the contrary, the average American still wants to hang on to this belief that maybe, just maybe, he or she (mostly he) just might make it big after all (4).”

American economist and political writer Thomas Sowell, however, disagrees with Moore. According to Sowell, “Taxpayers whose incomes were in the bottom 20 percent in 1996 had a 91 percent increase in incomes by 2005. Meanwhile, taxpayers in the top one-hundredth of one percent -- "the rich" or "superrich" if you believe politicians and the media -- had their incomes drop by 26 percent over those very same years. The University of Michigan Panel Survey on Income Dynamics showed that, among people who were in the bottom 20 percent income bracket in 1975, only 5 percent were still in that category in 1991. Nearly six times as many of them were now in the top 20 percent. (5)”

Not everyone is convinced. Harlon L. Dalton, a Professor of Law at Yale University, cites numerous flaws in the “American Dream.” According to Dalton, not only is the myth fallacious, but it is socially destructive. “There are lots of Black folk who subscribe to the Alger myth and at the same time understand it to be deeply false. They live with the dissonance between myth and reality because both are helpful and healthful in dealing with ‘the adverse events of life.’ Many Whites, however, have a strong interest in resolving the dissonance in favor of the myth. Far from needing to be on guard against racial ‘threat[s] or challenge[s],’ they would just as soon put the ugliness of racism out of mind. For them, the Horatio Alger myth provides them the opportunity to do just that. (6)”

Americans face a grim reality if the “American Dream” is to be believed. While there is almost negligible growth for the bottom half of our country, the top 1 percent of American society has seen their incomes double. According to Gregory Mantsios, director of working education at CUNY, “The top 20 percent of the American population hold 85 percent of the total household wealth in the country—a statistic that does not give much hope to the remaining 80 percent. The poor are becoming poorer and owe more money. The average working class owed approximately $500 in 1985. Today it is $8,000. A total of fourteen percent of Americans live below the poverty line” ($7,992 for individuals and $16,209 for a family of four.) (7)

We can do better than this. Instead of relying on erroneous notions about what it takes to succeed in society (and blaming the poor when they don’t happen to “make it”), we can do more. Instead of sitting on the sidelines, we can volunteer our time at charities, soup kitchens and community organizations. We can donate money. How many “hard working” Americans lost their jobs and their homes during this recession? How many children will have to sleep on the streets, not knowing when they will receive their next meal? Unfortunately, the “American Dream” won’t help this child now, nor will it help the unemployed person about to lose his or her home. It won’t help the ex-convict who is looking for a second chance (see: Networking, Economics and the Law: Stigma, Recidivism and Second Chances.) It’s been over seventy years since Adams’ book was released. Are Americans really better off now?

It will take all of us to ensure that America is a more prosperous country once we emerge from this recession. A fervent belief that the “American Dream” will help all Americans achieve financial independence just won’t do.

*Andrew Bruskin is a contributing editor for All About Business, an organization geared towards economic empowerment and community advocacy throughout the United States. He was the elected president of The National Society of Collegiate Scholars (NSCS), a national honor society comprised of 230 chapters in all 50 states of the U.S. with over 650,000 members. Currently attending the College of William and Mary School of Law, Andrew is a contributing editor for the Constitutional Law Society and the founder and co-president of the Northeast Legal Society. He can be reached at


2) Huber, Richard. The American Idea of Success, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971.
3) Dalton, Harlon L. Racial Healing: Confronting the Fear Between Blacks and Whites. 1995. 16 Apr 2008.
6) Dalton, Harlon L. Racial Healing: Confronting the Fear Between Blacks and Whites. 1995. 16 Apr 2008.
7) Mantsios, Gregory. "Class in America: Myths and Realities." Rereading America. Eds.

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